DOLAKHA, Nepal — Suntali Thami grew up in a tiny village here in this remote district set in the foothills of the Himalayas. Her family, destitute farmers, did not have the money to send her to school. So when she was a young girl, about the age of 13, they sent her down to the capital, Kathmandu, to earn money washing dishes at a hotel. Alone in the big city, Suntali’s life took a turn for the worse.
Within a few months, the much older hotel manager took a liking to the pretty young girl with a sweet smile and decided to marry her. Suntali did not want to marry him, she says, but she felt she had no option as it appeared to be the man’s choice.
As she talks, she sits on a straw mat outside her in-laws’ home as her baby named Durga sleeps under a blanket nearby and another baby, her niece Sita, with a head of thick, disheveled black hair, begins to cry. Suntali runs her hand through Sita’s hair as flies land around the infant’s eyes.
Suntali is among the 51 percent of Nepalese who marry as children, according to the United Nation’s Children’s Fund (UNICEF).
The practice carries with it devastating consequences for young girls’ health and well-being, child advocates say, and yet the social, economic and cultural pressures associated with the tradition make it difficult to end. Officially, it is against the law to marry under the age of 20, but these laws go ignored, particularly in remote areas.
The child marriage rate is dropping in Nepal, yet the practice is still common among poor, rural families.
Suntali’s precise age is not known, but the family estimates she is about 16 years old now, making her approximately 13 or 14 when she was married off to the hotel manager. Soon after getting married, Suntali moved to her in-laws’ home in Sundrawoti Village, a collection of mud and brick houses set on a vibrant green-terraced mountain. Suntali’s new home has dirt floors and no electricity. It holds few belongings except some metal pots, farming tools and a hand-held leather drum that her father-in-law, Sukha Bahador Thami, plays when he works as the community shaman.
“We are very poor. There is nothing here,” the old man says as he walks around his house. He points with his weathered hand to some utensils and a beat up water basin sitting on a pile of twigs and debris. “There is nothing.”
A landlocked nation that has had a tumultuous political history, Nepal is one of the world’s poorest countries with severe social, economic and geographic disparities. Maoist rebels waged an armed conflict against the monarchy in 1996. By the time the civil war ended a decade later, about 13,000 people had died and much of the nation’s rural development had been disrupted. Nepal has spent the past five years trying to transition to a firmly established democratic republic, but an unstable government has struggled to complete the peace process.
More than half of Nepal’s 29 million people live on less than $1.25 a day, and poverty often compels parents to marry their daughters off while they are still young.
“Families always say they marry [their] girls early because of poverty,” said Rita Pandey, a program officer with SOLID Nepal, an organization that works on sexual and reproductive health, as she trekked along a muddy road outside Suntali’s village. Pandey hikes into the mountains to educate families about the risks of child marriage.
When a girl or woman marries in Nepal, she traditionally moves into the home of her husband and in-laws, as Suntali did. Poor parents, who do not benefit from a daughter’s labor after she marries, tend to see girls as a lost investment, Pandey said. Until they get married off, the girls are simply extra mouths to feed.
“Families want to spend money on the boys, not the girls,” she said.
Nepalese girls have poor educational opportunities, presenting another reason for parents to marry off their daughters early, say gender and health advocates.
Girls often drop out of school for a variety of reasons — parents like Suntali’s cannot afford the cost of transportation or supplies; other parents want the daughter’s help at home; many schools do not have toilets for girls who need privacy during menstruation; and some female students face violence or abuse from boys at school or during the walk to and from home.
Once a daughter drops out of school, Nepalese parents feel pressure to marry her because they do not want her to be home all day. If she were left home alone, the daughter could have a premarital affair, which could ruin the family’s reputation, or she could become a victim of abuse or even trafficking, according to Anand Tamang of the Center for Research on Environment Health and Population Activities.
Suntali says her husband waited six weeks after the wedding and then tried to have sex with her.
“I didn’t know what he was doing,” she says. “I tried to push him away.”
Her husband continued to have sex with Suntali two to three times a week. Each time, she says, it was painful. She did not want to get pregnant, but she wasn’t sure what was happening to her or what effect it would have. Within a couple of years, Suntali gave birth at home to Durga, the baby lying under the blanket.
Adolescent girls’ bodies are often not mature enough to carry the burden of a pregnancy and birth, and pregnancy-related deaths are the leading cause of mortality for girls aged 15 to 19 around the world, according to the International Center for Research on Women. Girls pregnant younger than 15 are five times more likely to die in childbirth than women in their 20s, according to the ICRW report.
Suntali had no complications, and the birth went well. But life only got harder.
Five months ago, Suntali’s sister-in-law died of tuberculosis. Now, the teenager cares for her own daughter plus her three nieces.
Suntali picks up her crying niece, Sita, positions the screaming baby onto her lap as she pulls down her shirt and feeds her. Soon Durga, dressed in only a camouflage t-shirt, wakes and hollers. Suntali puts Sita in her right arm, nestles Durga in her left and pulls out her second breast to feed.
“Milk from my breasts is not enough for both children,” she says. “So I give them rice and grains.”
The young mother says the babies fall sick a few times each month, suffering from a cough, fever and diarrhea. But she does the best she can. Suntali says she does not know if she will arrange the girls’ marriages. For now what’s important is school. Education, says Suntali, should come before marriage.
Funding for this project was provided by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.