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The Teen Brides of Nepal: Married With Children Before Their Time

The Himalayan nation of Nepal has one of the highest rates of child marriage in the world. Two women tell us about their decision to marry early and reveal the challenges they face as young mothers.

Written by Sonia Narang Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
Sumina Pariyar, 17, holds up her baby daughter in their tin shack near a congested highway overpass in Kathmandu, Nepal. Sumina married as a teen and was pregnant in her husband's remote village when the Nepal earthquake struck and destroyed their home. Sonia Narang

KATHMANDU, Nepal Sumina Pariyar is just a teenager, but looks older than her 17 years as she holds her coughing 8-month-old daughter. Sumina and her family live in a tin shack near a congested underpass in Nepal’s capital city. She survived a devastating earthquake while pregnant, and struggles to care for her baby on her husband’s meager income.

In another part of the city, Rabina (who doesn’t want her surname published) sits on her bed and gently weeps as she recalls dropping out of school at age 16 to marry a man she loved. She and her husband have since separated. Rabina, now 23, works alongside her father in a garment warehouse to help support her young daughter.

In Nepal, more than one-third of all girls are married before age 18, and 10 percent are married by the time they turn 15. Though the legal age of marriage in Nepal is 20, both Sumina and Rabina wed much earlier by choice, never had a chance to finish school, and are now young mothers. Groups such as Human Rights Watch say that so-called love marriages like these are often driven by girls trying to escape poverty or difficult circumstances – but the marriages can also pose significant risks.

Sumina and Rabina tell us what led to them getting married so young, and what their lives are like now.

Sumina’s Story

I had a tough childhood since my family had no money. In third grade, I had to quit school and started working. I cleaned people’s homes, and washed their clothes and dishes. My family sent me to carry stones at road construction sites, and all the money I earned went to my family.

When I was younger, I had a dream of studying and becoming something big. But, instead of school, I had to work long hours. My friends would say, “Why do you work so much? Why don’t you just get married?”

I got married when I turned 16. I was very young and didn’t know what was going to happen to me, so I just got married.

Sumina Pariyar and her family live in this row of corrugated tin shacks in Kathmandu. She says the dust and pollution have led to her baby’s respiratory problems. (Sonia Narang)

I met my husband at the construction site where we worked. After a few months, we decided to elope and go to my husband’s village in the district of Sindhupalchowk.

When we reached his village, it was very dark. I was very scared and thought maybe I should go back home. I had no idea where I was, so I was really nervous. I was in this strange place. I even told my husband, “I don’t know if I can stay here.” But he told me not to worry and that he would bring me back to Kathmandu soon.

But, after a month, I was pregnant so I had to stay put in the village. The pregnancy wasn’t planned; it just happened. Even though we knew about contraceptives, the hospital was really far so I couldn’t go there to get any birth control.

After I learned I was pregnant, I told my husband and mother-in-law that I’m too young and small to have a baby right now. I tried to take pills to abort the pregnancy, but my mother-in-law stopped me. I was very scared, since I wasn’t ready for the baby, but my in-laws yelled at me.

Then the earthquake happened. It was extremely scary since I couldn’t walk or run while I was pregnant. My husband helped me out of the house while the ground was shaking and took me to a place that was safer. The baby was big in my stomach, and the earth was shaking for a long time. I thought I was going to die. My husband’s house was destroyed by the earthquake.

My parents thought the earthquake had killed me, since we had not communicated at all after I’d eloped. They were not happy when we eloped, so they cut all connections with me. But, after the earthquake, they came all the way to my husband’s village, found us, and brought us back to Kathmandu. I gave birth there a few months later.

Sumina Pariyar (center), sits with her grandmother, mother and baby. Her mother and grandmother were also married at a very young age. (Sonia Narang)

We live in this tin shack for 1,500 Nepali rupees ($14) per month. Because of the cold, we used to light a fire and it was very smoky inside. It’s very dirty and polluted outside. My baby is not very healthy and keeps falling ill. She’s coughing most of the time and has respiratory issues.

I will tell my daughter not to get married at an early age because I got married young, and this is what my life is like right now. I will tell her to study. I will be very strict, and I won’t let her go out too much or meet her friends too much. I have to educate her, no matter what.

Rabina’s Story

I was 15 years old when I met my husband. One day, we just went to the temple and got married without telling my parents. It was really strange for me to leave my family and go to my husband’s house. It was a different environment and I had no friends there, but I got used to it.

My mom had a slight idea of what had happened, but my father didn’t know where I went. For days, he kept asking my mom where I was, and she kept telling him I was at a friend’s house. One day, he came to know that I got married and left, and he was really upset.

We had a child a few years later, and then there were many arguments. My husband became very commanding and used to tell me what to do and not to do. The turning point came when he told me to completely forget my family if I wanted to be with him. I did not want to just leave my family behind.

I came back home to my mother’s house with my baby, and things became more distant between my husband and I. There are many questions from people we know, since I came back home to live with my parents. In Nepal, if you are separated or get a divorce, you are looked down upon by society.

Rabina, 23, holds one of her young daughter’s stuffed animals. Rabina married as a teenager but is now separated from her husband. (Sonia Narang)

Since my family isn’t well off, I feel frustrated they have to take care of me and my child. So, I’m working now to help support my child. I only made it up to 10th grade, and I always wanted to study more but didn’t have the chance after I got married. Now, I work in a garment warehouse, folding clothes for about seven hours a day and I make about 500 rupees ($4.60) per day.

My parents don’t want me to think about another marriage because of all the complications in my past. If I talk to anyone around here now, they get upset at me. They tell me not to fall in love. They tell me to spend the rest of my life taking care of my child.

These conversations have been edited for length and clarity.

CORRECTION: This story has been updated to fix a typo that misspelled Rabina’s name.

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