Parshuram Harijan was married at the age of nine. On his wedding day, he wore a dhoti, a traditional Nepali garment comprising a piece of fabric wrapped around the legs and knotted at the waist.
When he went to use the bathroom that night, he couldn’t undo his formal wear. His first time in the dhoti, he struggled to untie it and ended up urinating on his outfit. It was a shameful moment. But Harijan, like many Nepali boys, was being ushered into an adult life prematurely.
In the Kapilvastu district, roughly 150 miles southwest of Kathmandu, 12 percent of boys are wed by age 14, and 62 percent by age 19. CARE, an international nonprofit that works in the region, acknowledges that the data is limited and early marriage rates among boys could be higher than government statistics indicate.
Globally, UNICEF estimates that 156 million men were married before age 18 (though only a small fraction of those were under 15). In comparison with the 720 million underage women who are wed, it’s a fragment of the world population. The issue of child grooms has been far less studied and researched, with most international organizations and experts focusing on child brides.
Yet CARE found that boys, too, can suffer under the weight of a child marriage: psychological trauma, poor livelihoods, and little education are all results of being married too soon. The pressures mounting on young men to grow up, provide for their wives and new families, and focus on work, not education, can have lifelong ramifications.
“Very narrow definitions of gender roles are what’s causing this,” explains Nidal Karim, a gender specialist at CARE. “Boys are seen as breadwinners, and girls are pushed into being homemakers and more domestic jobs. Having these narrow definitions at a young age is fueling child marriage.”
In 2013, CARE launched a program called The Tipping Point to address child marriage in rural pockets of Nepal, a particularly vulnerable region. Designed to strike at the root causes of child marriage there, the program encourages progressive conversation about the issue.
“I had no idea what marriage meant,” Harijan writes in a letter provided to TakePart by CARE. “But I knew there were new expectations for me. Everyone told me you have responsibilities now. The dreams and energy you have as a young person go away. You are tormented by the responsibility of having a wife and family.”
Harijan’s first marriage ended quickly because he was not ready for sexual activity. He remarried at 14 to Mayadevi Harijan; the two moved in together three years later to consummate the marriage. Today, they have three children. Now 32, Harijan has emerged as an ally in the fight against child marriage. He is a community mobilizer, working to help boys, girls, parents, grandparents, religious leaders, and educators understand—and hopefully change—the practice.
His wife is a preschool teacher and proud of her husband’s work. “We don’t need to be holding back our boys and girls with early marriage,” she says. “I want them to be independent by the time they get married, so they’re able to stay in school.”
But changing mind-sets is not an easy task. Not every case is as successful as Harijan’s.
At 12, Mathura Dhobi was married to a local village girl who was only 10. Now a farmer in his 20s, he finds himself locked in a lifestyle with limited income and social mobility. Child marriage runs in his family: His father, Shiv Pujan Dhobi, was married at 10. In a letter provided by CARE, he writes that his father was held back economically because of his early marriage. Despite his own experience, he still had his son marry at a young age, mostly owing to social pressures.
“When they start talking about the boy not getting married, it starts to affect our family’s standing,” Shiv writes. “In order to avoid such a situation where people ridicule, I got him married young.”
Dhobi’s mother was supportive of the early marriage. The two felt they had to wed their eldest son as soon as possible because of family pressure, primarily from his grandparents, who believed that marriage would bring blessings from Hindu gods and improve their chances of an afterlife.
She also saw it as a practical way to address the growing list of household chores that needed to be done. A daughter-in-law could pitch in, alleviating the burden on her. Today, Dhobi’s wife, Shivnandani, does the bulk of the cooking and cleaning for the family. She moved in with her in-laws at 13 and was pregnant by 14. Giving birth at her age nearly killed her.
These intimate family details are not discussed openly in Nepal, says Karim. “We are trying to create that space where people can talk about it, because we are discovering that there are parents who don’t agree with the practice but are pressured into adopting it.”
Why do parents marry off young boys when they could offer physical labor to the family and be an asset?
“The marriage functions as a way to control the decisions that an adolescent boy makes,” Karim explains. Those include not marrying out of his caste, only pursuing work that his family approves of, and earning an income at an early age.
Today The Tipping Point facilitates discussions on everyday issues: Children and parents organize into local weekly discussion groups to talk about reproductive health, the importance of education, consequences of early marriage, sexual harassment, dowries, the rights of children, and family planning. The nonprofit estimates that it engaged with approximately 240 boys, 500 girls, 368 parents, and 224 community members between May 2015 and April 2016— its second year of programming.
In spring 2017, CARE will do a final evaluation of The Tipping Point to compile more data and catalog the evolution.
Just in the last three years, Karim says, the organization has witnessed a cultural shift. “Even the young men who are activists now against child marriage are finding that the boys today are getting married slightly later, and marriages are happening at 11 and 12, but they’re not consummating until 16 or 17.”