“The blood of the boys is as red as ours. A girl will one day become mother, and all boys are born to mothers. Why are girls treated differently?”
Punam thinks she’s 16 years old, but she can’t say for sure. What she can be certain of is that she’s getting married tomorrow. She hasn’t met her groom-to-be, Ashok, yet, but on her phone she has a grainy photo of him that reveals not much more than a dark silhouette sitting in a white plastic lawn chair.
"I'm afraid I do not know what awaits me. It was my uncle who found Ashok and made the agreement with his family. It is the community that decides what happens to me and my two sisters,” she says.
When Punam's parents died, she and her two sisters went to live with their aunt. It was the only solution at the time, but today, money is tight and the family can no longer cope. They have nothing – dirt poor, illiterate and at the bottom of the caste system ladder – leaving few options but to marry off the girls.
“I will miss my aunt but Ashok is my saviour. He has a job in Bangalore – he sews bags by hand in a large factory and earns $100 a month. I will certainly have a better life.”
Punam has a child's body and when asked how she is going to prevent herself getting pregnant, she whispers, "I do not know how to get pregnant."
Twenty-four hours later and it’s time for the wedding. Ashok is dressed like a prince, with shoes that are clearly too large for him. Like Punam, nobody is sure how old he is, but he appears to be a teenage boy, barely pubescent.
During the ceremony, Punam and Ashok do not look at each other. To conclude the formalities, Ashok thumbs a line of bright red powder along his bride’s hair parting. Punam will wear this Hindu symbol throughout her married life. The red line on her head shows her status: she is the property of her husband and her in-laws.
Life of a widow.
Married girls like Punam are very visible in Nepal, adorned in bright colours. Widows are also immediately identifiable as they are forbidden to wear any bright colours. In some communities, they are considered harbingers of bad luck.
For a young widow in Nepal, the outlook can be even bleaker than when she was married.
Seventeen-year-old Sumila is a mother of two and a widow.
"I was married for seven years, but disease took away my husband. Here, no-one wants a woman who already has children. Today I have nothing, neither land nor house or beast. Women have no property rights. The day I got married, I became the property of my in-laws,” she says.
“Now they reject me, and I cannot enter my husband’s house. When a woman dies, men continue to live as before, but for a girl, life stops."
Sumila draws hope from life skills sessions’ put on by children’s rights organisation Plan International. There, she meets other girls in similar situations.
All of the girls have a simple wish: to become financially independent so they don't have to rely on anyone else.
Pratima is one of those girls.
"I have filed for divorce. My in-laws beat me. They gave me nothing to eat. They cut my hair,” she says.
“They have beaten me because my father could not pay the dowry. I knew nothing, I'm still young. Today I live with my father again, but no-one will want to marry me. That's why I'm here. I need to survive. Without these people here, I'll never make it."
All the girls in the group are affected by Pratima’s words. Among them is 15-year-old Kajal, who one day wants to become a judge.
"The blood of the boys is as red as ours,” she says. “A girl will one day become mother, and all boys are born to mothers. Why are girls treated differently?”
Driven to desperation.
Sandwiched between India and China, Nepal lacks much in the way of basic infrastructure and is one of the poorest countries in the region.
Poverty, overcrowding, lack of education and desperate situations contribute to driving girls into marriage long before they are ready. Some 41% of Nepalese girls are married before the legal age of 18; old traditions and a caste system count more than the law.
The district of Rauthahat is home to Sanju and Devi, a husband and wife of the Mali caste, one of the lowest in the system, who live with their four young daughters.
None of them goes to school and three of the girls are already married. There’s Puja, a beautiful young girl of 14, who was promised in marriage before she was two years old; Asa, 5, who was given in marriage when she was two; and Rubi, 4, who has been married for two years already.
"They do not realise it. How could they? They were much too young. It has always been this way, we were doing it at the time of my grandfather. We are only a very small group, and it is not easy to find a suitable man for my daughters. God granted me girls. It's my destiny, but I love them a lot," their father says.
"I get my sons-in-law from other towns, and I'm especially careful to choose a good home. This is most important. I speak with the boy's father and we set a date and dowry. Of course, they will cry when they leave. We too will cry. They will stay with us until they are older, but we know from the first day of their lives that they will have to leave eventually."
Sanju himself was married when he was two years old, but at 14 he met Devi, fell in love and paid a fine to break off his marriage, leaving him free to wed true love. It won’t be so easy for Sanju’s children to do the same, however; it’s far more difficult for a girl to end a marriage than a boy.
In communities like these, it can be an uphill struggle to convince people of the value of education for girls, but that’s exactly what organisation’s like Plan International do, working with families to show them that there is another way so that future generations of girls will grow up able to make their own choices about when they get married and to whom. Plan International supports girls and boys to continue their education and find employment so they are not reliant on marriage as a means to achieve economic wellbeing.
This story, written by Lieve Blancquaert, is contribution towards Plan International's Because I am a Girl campaign. The Because I am a Girl campaign aims to unleash the incredible potential of girls to create a better world. If you would like to learn more or donate, visit their website here.