Patriarchy plagues the lives of young girls in SirahaWhen one girl acts beyond the traditional norms, all other girls in the village face the consequences—their education is discontinued and they are married off.
Sunita, a recent high school graduate, ran away from her home; eloped with her lover in Siraha.
When the family realised this, they were devastated. Not because they were worried for their daughter Sunita – whose name has been changed to protect her identity – but because their “honour” in society was compromised.
“The family was socially condemned and looked down upon by the entire village. That came as a stark warning for all other families in the village – ‘control your daughter, or else you lose your dignity and social standing,’” says Kamala, 21, who hails from Choharwa, Chandralalpur Municipality, Siraha.
Following the incident, the entire village collectively decided to marry their daughters off, according to Kamala.
“Their family forced Sunita’s younger sister, who was studying in grade 10, to discontinue her education. Now, they are actively in search of a groom for her,” says Kamala, whose name has been changed to protect her identity.
This, however, isn’t a one-off incident. It’s a recurring pattern in Siraha, which leads to further restrictions where young girls are even forced into marriage, according to locals and experts.
“What happened after Sunita’s elopement had happened before as well. A girl was killed by her former boyfriend after her family fixed her marriage elsewhere. The villagers then decided to marry off all young girls back then too,” Kamala told the Post. “Villagers get scared that their daughters will taint their social dignity just like the other girls, so they want to get rid of them as soon as possible.”
Such ripple effects of the actions of one young girl felt by girls across the village, according to experts, is because of the burden of honour placed on a woman’s shoulders.
“The young girl who elopes, or who the society believes to be seeing someone, or who even gets murdered, is only seeking freedom. Many locals believe that internet le chhori bigaryo (internet has morally corrupted their daughters), but the young girls are simply looking for freedom,” says Pallavi Payal, an independent feminist researcher.
“As they seek places where there are fewer restrictions, or can get any kind of care and affection, with the lack of proper information, guidance and counselling, they may elope. But that is not her fault; it is the fault of the system that fails to guarantee her freedom and rights in the first place.”
Young girls like Sunita face heavy restrictions in mobility and interactions in the region. Experts in the field say that it is because of the dogmatic values that consider women as second-class citizens, making them vulnerable and unsafe.
A daughter becomes a burden that everyone wants to get rid of, and they do so by marrying her off early, they say.
“A girl in this society is a caged parrot; she has to always know her limitations and stay within the confines of four walls,” says Shyam Kumari Sah, chairperson of Mukti Nepal, a non-governmental organisation working against child marriage in Siraha.
“If a girl does anything remotely beyond the acceptable norms, she is either killed or completely discarded by the family. And to ensure that no other girl takes steps similar to the ‘rebellious’ girl, every other young girl in the village bears the consequence—first, discontinuation of her studies; second, marriage.”
The consequences of these restrictions are borne by the young girls again, in the name of preserving the honour of the families. Many child rights are violated in the process—from their right to education, right against discrimination, right to freedom of expression and information, right to protection and so on, according to experts.
“Many young girls then have to bear physical and emotional abuse at the hands of their parents and in-laws. Their rights are violated throughout their lifetime,” says Sah.
Such blanket decisions imposed on women and girls are also evident from an announcement made by Simraungadh Municipality, Bara on March 18, 2020.
The municipality passed a rule to “ban the use of mobile phones by unmarried women,” imposing a fine of Rs50,000 on any girl found in possession of a mobile phone.
The rule came about with the belief that access to the internet to young girls could be “contrary to the public morality or decent behaviour”.
While the rule was revoked after a public outcry over its discriminatory nature, it demonstrates the pervasive nature of patriarchal beliefs that ends up institutionalising restrictions on young girls’ freedoms and mobility, robbing them of their fundamental rights.
Such decisions highlight that even the decision-makers at the local level—who are supposed to guarantee the constitutional rights of the citizenry—instead contribute to upholding discriminatory values and violating the rights of women.
“An elected people’s representative at Golbazar encouraged a father of two, who had lost his wife, to get married to a 15-year-old young girl. The representative suggested that the father get married, leave his village for a couple of months and then come back to avoid any commotion,” says Sah, who is also a Madhes Province representative for the National Alliance of Women Human Rights Defenders.
These incidents where not just the locals but also the elected people’s representatives encourage dogmatic beliefs create a lot of cultural barriers and difficulties for child protection organisations to be effective. Police officials, according to activists, also seem to be inefficient in dealing with such cases.
According to police officials at Siraha District Police Office, there aren’t many complaints of child marriages that get registered at the stations.
In the fiscal year 2020-21, only two cases of child marriage were registered in Siraha district.
“The major challenge we face is that we aren’t aware of child marriages in the region. We take action as and when complaints are filed,” says Ram Chandra Saha, spokesperson for the District Police Office, Siraha. “And, when we try to intervene in cases where families of both bride and groom have agreed, we face a backlash.”
However, activists in the field believe that the police data do not represent reality. Police officials in most cases refuse to register complaints of child marriage, they say.
When parents willingly marry off their underage daughters, nobody files complaints, according to Sah.
At times, police falsely tell the locals that the parents of the bride and groom have agreed to call off the wedding. However, the wedding venue gets changed, and despite being aware of it, police officials turn a blind eye to the event, experts say.
Locals share that such collective decisions of marrying off their girls happens time and again in their society. Media reports often cover individual instances of crimes – unmarried girls killed by former partners or girls eloping – but very little conversation takes place about larger consequences on the lives of other young girls, according to them.
“Occasionally, we read of instances of some unmarried girls getting killed by their former partners or girls eloping, but no one talks about what happens to other girls in the village,” says Kamala. “The trauma and horror becomes even more exaggerated for those who are left behind.”