How One Child Groom is Fighting Child Marriage Today

How One Child Groom is Fighting Child Marriage Today

Everything seemed to be going well for Parshuram Harijan amid the dancing and celebration at his wedding. Until he had to go to bathroom.

Never before had Parshuram worn a dhoti, a traditional men’s wrap that covers the legs and is knotted at the waist. Unable to untie it, he urinated on the special outfit. Parshuram felt ashamed, as if he had sullied his wedding day.

He was 9 years old.

“I had no idea what marriage meant,” said Parshuram, now 31. “But I knew there were new expectations for me. Everyone told me you have responsibilities now.” 

Parshuram would feel that pressure again, three years later, when his wife moved in with his family. Under the marital traditions of Dalits and other marginalized castes in the flatlands of soutwestern Nepal, the couple commenced gauna, during which the bride remains in the bedroom for days and marriages are to be consummated.

Parshuram, then 12, said he wasn’t ready for sexual activity. He wasn’t prepared to be a father or for the responsibility of supporting a family. "I was overwhelmed," Parshuram said. "I couldn't do what was expected of me as a married man."

Because child marriage rates are so much higher globally for girls, who suffer a long list of negative consequences that range from domestic violence to deadly childbirth complications, discussion of the problem is most often framed around child brides alone. But CARE has found that boys here also suffer mightily under the weight of child marriage. Some, like Parshuram, experience psychological trauma.  Many are forced to drop out of school, lowering their earning potential.

After the wedding, everyone tells you, '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.

There is a silver lining, however, to this shared misery among girls and boys. Former child grooms such as Parshuram have emerged as natural allies in a CARE program called the Tipping Point, launched in August 2013 to tackle the underlying causes of child marriage.

“Many of the men in these communities, when given the space to open up about the positive and negative forces in their lives, are clearly able to see the harm child marriage has done to them,” said Gita Kumari Shah, head of monitoring and evaluation for the Tipping Point program in Nepal. “They know what it’s like to be trapped, between boyhood and fatherhood. And that makes them particularly effective at promoting change so fewer boys and girls have to endure what they did.”

Today Parshuram works as a Tipping Point “social mobilizer.” That means engaging with boys and girls, parents and grandparents, religious leaders and educators. He’s helping deepen the understanding of — and eventually change — the perceptions and practices that perpetuate child marriage.

Parshuram knows all too well about the pressure from extended family and neighbors to marry off children young. Whispers that something must be wrong with a child travel through the community if he or she goes deep into their teens without marrying. That causes parents to fear their son or daughter won’t ever be able to marry unless they commit them to a union early.  Grandparents, meanwhile, believe seeing their grandchildren marry brings them blessing and a better chance at an afterlife. Some Hindu leaders have reinforced the practice too, citing scripture where Hindu god Ram marries Shiva when he was 14 and she 11.

Extreme financial pressure on families struggling to feed themselves also leads many to treat their children’s marriages as obligations to be executed at the lowest cost. That can mean marrying off girls early to lower the dowry price. And because so many young men travel to India or the Middle East for work, parents want them married early, believing they’ll be more likely to send money back home. Marrying boys brings a dowry of livestock, furniture or cash. And there’s another motivation: the son’s wife will move in with the parents, providing help with household labor.

To confront these forces head-on, social mobilizers such as Parshuram have started organizing girls, boys and parents into weekly discussion groups where they tackle subjects such as reproductive health, the importance of education, negative consequences of early marriage, sexual harassment, dowry, right rights of children and family planning. Fathers and daughters are sharing their feelings with each other. Sons and fathers are talking through their hopes and regrets. Girls are sharing their fears and dreams with their mothers and mothers-in-law. Opinions are changing.

Parshuram knows it’s never too late for life to take a positive turn, even for pre-pubescent girls and boys still being forced into marriage. Parshurman’s painful first marriage ended, after it became clear that he was not ready for sexual activity. Looking back, he suspects his first wife was older than the family had realized. The couple had been matched up based on their heights. At 9, Parshuram was tall for his age. His first wife was short.

Parshuram ended up remarrying, at age 14, to Mayadevi Harijan. They moved in together when he was 17. Today they have three children, ages 12, 10 and 4. Mayadevi, a preschool teacher, said she considers her husband’s work critically important for the community and for her own children. “We don’t need to be holding back our boys and girls with early marriage,” she said. “I want them to be independent by the time they get married, so they’re able to stay in school.”