Married as children, women in Bajhang are abused, abandoned and killing themselvesThe majority of marriages in the district are still between underage children, which often leads to polygamy and gender-based violence.
When Rajula Bohara of Surma village was married at the age of 13, she had never imagined the ordeals awaiting her. Her husband, who was 15 at the time, loved her for at least two years, she said, but after he passed tenth grade, he went to Dhangadi for further studies. There, he married another woman and when he returned, began beating Bohara.
“Some days, he would beat me so hard he’d leave me assuming I was dead,” Bohara, now 28, recalled in an interview. “I would manage to go to the nearby health post. Nobody from the family or the village came to my rescue.”
Bohara had given birth to three children in eight years, but once she developed complications in her uterus, she was forcefully evicted from her husband’s home. Today, Bohara crushes pebbles on the banks of the Bahulikhola river, earning just enough to send her six-year-old son to school and feed the other two.
“It’s because I love my son that I am still alive,” she said. “If there was anybody else who would take care of my son, I would kill myself by jumping into the Seti.”
In the district of Bajhang, Bohara’s story is not unique. Despite government promises, child marriage remains rampant in the district. In Chainpur alone, there are about 50 girls who were married as children but have since been kicked out of their homes and are living on their own, according to Sita Singh, former chief of the Women’s Security Home, a rights organisation under the Women’s Rights Forum. There are more than a thousand such women in the entire district, said Singh.
According to the Women and Children’s Office in Bajhang, over 60 percent of all marriages in the district are still between underage children. According to a 2014 report by the Bajhang District Coordination Committee, a total of 528 children were married before the age of 10, 8,842 between 10 and 14, and 33,131 between 15 and 19 in the district.
Lakshmi Dhami of Bhatekhola village has a story similar to Bohara’s. Dhami was married at the age of 14, but after four years, her husband married another woman.
“After that, all of the family got together and beat me,” said Dhami. “The days got worse and I was left with no option than to flee.”
Before she came to Chainpur with her five-year-old daughter, her father-in-law seized her citizenship card, lest she file a case against them.
“They have warned me that they will kill me,” she said. “Even after I started living on my own, I can’t be at peace.”
According to Singh, most women who are married off as children are illiterate or semi-literate, like Bohara and Dhami, since they don’t get the chance to study once they are married.
“Their husbands migrate to other cities for further studies and get married there,” said Singh. “In the district, the major cause of polygamy is child marriage.”
Teenage girls who get married early have to manage both household chores and their studies, which often leads to them performing poorly at school or dropping out, according to Nandaram Joshi, principal of the Himalaya Secondary School in Daantola village in the district.
“Most women in the village get married between the ages of 12 and 15,” said Joshi. “The performance of students, even the ones who used to be good at studies, deteriorates after they get married. Some end up leaving school altogether.”
According to Kabi Mahar, principal of the Deveshwari Higher Secondary School, eight secondary-level girls at his school are currently pregnant. Once they give birth, they may not return, he said.
Without an education and no means to support themselves, the young girls are trapped. And as they are semi-literate at best, they have little recourse to the law, as the case of Gauthali Dhami of Lek Gaun illustrates.
Gauthali was 13 when she was married. Soon after her marriage, she started getting abused by her husband and her father-in-law. Two years ago, when she went to pick yarsagumba, her husband beat her ruthlessly and left her in the jungle to die.
“He thought I was already dead, so he left me there,” she said. “But other people on the yarsagumba hunt saw me and took care of me.”
About 18 months ago, Gauthali came to Chainpur with her two-year-old child to seek justice. Her husband’s family was enraged and warned her they would kill her for “ruining the family’s prestige”. She filed for a divorce from her husband, but her case remains stuck as she washes utensils for a living at a relative’s hotel.
Women’s rights activists say that many women who come seeking justice to Chainpur, the district headquarters, get stranded instead.
“Many women do not dare seek legal measures at all. Those who do, can’t return home, fearing backlash from society and more brutality from their husband’s families,” said Singh. “Some try to find jobs; others resort to prostitution.”
According to Singh, 35 women have reported violence due to polygamy and child marriage at the Women’s Rights Forum in the past three years.
Treated as pariahs and with no means to support themselves, some women are killing themselves, said Singh.
Twenty-eight year old Goma Bohara, who was married at the age of 14, jumped into the Sanghar river in July with three of her children. Her corpse was found after a few days, but the children’s bodies are yet to be discovered. Goma’s neighbours say that her husband would beat her every day.
According to the district police, among the five women who committed suicide last year, three were married. Among over 30 suicide cases of women in the last five years, most are aged 15 to 22, according to the police.
“The men get married early due to family pressure, and as they age, they begin to get attracted to other women, and they take out their aggression on their wives,” said Deputy Superintendent of Police Surya Bahadur KC. “Women who can’t live with the violence commit suicide.”
Child marriage is, however, not limited to Bajhang; it is widespread across the country. According to a 2016 report by Human Rights Watch, 37 percent of girls in Nepal marry before the age of 18 and 10 percent are married by age 15, despite the fact that child marriage has been illegal in the country since 1963 and the minimum age of marriage, as per existing laws, is 20 years of age.
At the international “Girl Summit” held in London, in July 2014, Nepal’s Minister of Women, Children, and Social Welfare pledged to strive to end child marriage by 2020. But by the time the Nepal government held its own national “Girl Summit” in Kathmandu, in March 2016, this goal shifted to ending child marriage by 2030, to align with the 2030 end date of the global Sustainable Development Goals.