Eldest Son’s Burden: Cycle of Early Marriage Continues for Child Grooms

Eldest Son’s Burden: Cycle of Early Marriage Continues for Child Grooms

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Mathura Dhobi remembers his wedding day as a joyous, festive occasion. A band was playing. Everyone was dancing.

Mathura sat on a wooden stool during the ceremony, next to his bride, who was wearing a yellow sari. He’s not sure what they said to each other, if anything.

Mathura was 12. His bride was 10.

“I knew I was getting married but I didn’t know what that meant,” he said. “I thought it must be good. My parents were happy. My grandparents were happy. I was happy too.”

But looking back, Mathura does not consider his wedding day something to celebrate. Now 20 years old and the father of two children, Mathura toils in the paddy fields around the village of Madhu Nagara, earning just enough money for the family to get by. He lives in a cramped home with his wife, their son and daughter, his parents, his three brothers and the family’s two oxen. The room where they eat doubles as a bedroom for three and is separated from the outdoors by a blue plastic tarp.

“If I was married at 20 or 25, I could have studied and earned well for my family,” Mathura said, staring into a thick fog that had settled into the flatlands along the Nepal-India border. “But I was married young and I had children and I have to provide for them. There’s a lot of hardship. We are not happy.”

Child marriage disproportionately affects girls around the globe. But in Nepal, a significant portion of boys also are married very young and feel negative consequences too. In fact, Nepal is one of only eight countries around the world where more than 10 percent of boys are married before age 18, according to data from UNICEF. Driving that statistic up are the child marriage hot spots in western Nepal. Here, Dalits and other marginalized castes have a tradition of early marriage.

If I was married at 20 or 25, I could have studied and earned well for my family. But I was married young and I had children and I have to provide for them. There’s a lot of hardship. We are not happy.

- Mathura

In the Kapilbastu district, roughly150 miles southwest of Kathmandu, 26 percent of married women were married by age 14 and 86 percent by age 19. Among married men, 12 percent wed by age 14 and 62 percent by age 19. Many observers believe the early marriage rates are even higher than the official government figures from 2011 indicate.

As children age, parents here start to feel intense community and financial pressure to marry them off. Wait too long to marry off a son or daughter and members of the community may start to gossip about there being something wrong. The list of potential wives and husbands begins to shrink – or disappear entirely. That could leave a family with another mouth to feed in the home long-term or, worse, a son or daughter who pursues a “love” marriage with someone from another caste, tainting the family’s honor.

Mathura’s father, Shiv Pujan Dhobi, 43, was married young himself, at age 10. And he always knew the early marriage had held him back. Like his son, he was forced to drop out of school and work to support his new wife and, soon after, children.

Even so, Shiv had Mathura married young. Shiv said the pressure from his family and neighbors was simply too intense.

“When they start talking about the boy not getting married, it starts to affect our family’s standing,” Shiv said. “In order to avoid such a situation where people ridicule, I got him married young.”

Mathura’s mother, Kamalawati Dhobi, felt the pressure too. “The community would say ‘Why isn’t the eldest son married?’”

Mathura’s grandparents applied the most pressure. Like many here, they believed seeing their grandchildren marry would bring them the blessings of Hindu gods and increase the chances of an afterlife.

Also perpetuating early marriage is the strong desire to control the sexual relations of boys and girls to assure they don’t bring dishonor to the family. “They say if you wait for your son to get married until 16 or 17 he might make a mistake with another girl, which might bring dishonor to the parents,” Mathura’s father Shiv said. “So if he’s married early he will be with his family and he won’t look around elsewhere.”

Mathura’s mother, Kamalawati, also saw advantages to marrying her son early. She was struggling to keep up with all the chores at home and knew a daughter-in-law would ease that burden. After all, she was once that daughter-in-law. Now it would be her turn to get a helping hand.

Indeed, today Mathura’s wife, Shivnandani Dhobi, shoulders much of the cooking and cleaning for the family. As hard as early marriage has been on Mathura, the physical and psychological strain on Shibanendri has been greater. She had to move in with her in-laws at age 13. “If I made a mistake I would be scolded by my in-laws here. I would just sit in a corner and cry. I used to think about my home, where I wasn’t required to do anything like I do here. Back in my home, I never had to clean the cow dung.”

Shivnandani was pregnant by age 14 and encountered serious complications when giving birth to their son. Shivnandani ended up at the hospital, where she underwent an emergency procedure to stop the bleeding and save her life.  Then, she says, the really hard part began. “Because I had a baby at a young age, I didn’t know how to take care of a baby, so there was a lot of trouble.”

These negative consequences of early marriage haven’t traditionally been talked about openly. But under CARE’s Tipping Point program, designed to strike at the root causes of child marriage in western Nepal, new conversations have started. Girls, boys and parents have organized into discussion groups that meet weekly to talk about reproductive health, the importance of education, consequences of early marriage, sexual harassment, dowry, the rights of children and family planning.

Opinions are starting to change. Mathura’s mother and father have vowed not to marry off their younger sons at an early age, a decision made easier by the fact that the grandparents have passed away. “I would suggest to the new, younger generation to not get married at a young age,” Mathura’s father Shiv said. “They’ll have to bring their bride home, then they’ll have children but they won’t be able to take care of the responsibility of feeding their family . . . Even if they get married late and have less children, at least they’ll be happy. I have already seen what my eldest son has gone through.”

Ram Ujagir Yadav, a former classmate of Mathura’s, remembers how much he loved school. “Mathura was a good friend and a bright student,” he said. “But primarily because of his situation at home he had to leave his studies. I’m confident that if he had studied beyond the 8th grade he would have done well for himself.”

Yadav, who is a teacher, said Mathura had a passion for singing in particular. He would sing everything from traditional Hindu songs to modern Bollywood favorites. Yadav asks his friend to sing for a group of visitors, but Mathura declines. He’s not in the mood. He’s got to get back to work.

Mathura gathers another bale of golden paddy and rests it on his head. He walks, stone-faced, into the fog.