Inside the house of her husband’s parents, Apsara Devi Sah sits on a mat in a small, windowless storage room with a mud floor. Three days after her wedding she is still dressed in bridal finery – an ornately embroidered yellow veil and dress dipped in red, elaborate mehndi snaking down her arms and legs. Dozens of green, gold and red bangles trill when her hands dip to pull at the edge of her clothes. Against the grey walls, she glows.
Apsara is strikingly beautiful. She is extremely eloquent. She is 16.
“I didn’t want to get married but I was the only daughter and my father had to go abroad,” she says. “Society might think negative thoughts about having a grown daughter alone at home.
“Most girls in my village are married at around 15 or 16. I think I’m too young to get married; it should be 18.”
Despite the legal minimum age for marriage in Nepal being 20, in remote villages such as Potohr, in the Dhanusha district of the plains region, marrying off children has long been the norm. The country has one of the highest rates of child brides in the world. Fifty-two per cent of women between the ages 20 and 49 were married before they reached 18, according to the United Nations’ children’s programme. Fifteen per cent were married before the age of 15. By the age of 24, more than a third of them will have three or more children. The problem is particularly protracted in the plains, or Terai, region, where the most recent census, in 2011, found that 79 per cent of women were married before the age of 19.
Traditionally, underage marriage is a phenomenon associated with the uneducated. Studies have shown that girls with little or no education are six times more likely to be married early than those who attended secondary school. The corollary can be seen across the globe, with education initiatives pushing the rate down percentage point by percentage point, year by year.
And yet, Apsara is an academic star by the standards of this remote, Maithil village. She speaks Nepali, her second language, more flawlessly and formally than many native speakers. She is third in her class, having passed her school-leaving certificate (SLC; a qualification exam that students take in Nepal at the end of 10th grade) and started grade 11. Thanks to remittances from her father’s job in Qatar, both she and her brother have been able to attend school. Her parents are both illiterate.
When they married her off, her family did so because they felt mounting pressure within their community, Apsara says. But they did so too with an eye toward her academic promise.
“I wanted to keep studying. My father-in-law had assured my father that he will support me to be educated up to grade 12,” she says. “But I can’t say what will happen.”
While education has long been touted by everyone from the World Bank to the United Nations to governments as a key to eliminating child marriages, situations such as Apsara’s are far from unusual. In fact, a trend appears to be emerging in some of Nepal’s migration hot spots. As millions of Nepalis seek better jobs abroad, remittances are used to educate their daughters back home, in hopes of attracting more educated grooms. Better marriage prospectscan, in turn, mean more stability and opportunities for the girls. But whether that is leading to delayed marriage is far from clear.
“I think there’s a close relationship between the education level and child marriage. If the level of education is higher among the girls, it lowers the cases of child marriage,” says Madhuwanti Tuladhar, a child protection coordinator at Plan International in Nepal. “But child marriage is still taking place – even if the girls are going to school.” And once married, “almost 100 per cent drop out of school”.
Though their mothers are uneducated, among Apsara’s classmates, she says, “most girls study up to class nine or 10. In almost every house, the father is abroad”. But by the time the girls are 15 or 16, the pressures are beginning to mount.
“Parents worry [the girls] will do something wrong when they get mature and study,” Apsara explains. “It’s a very conservative society. Honour is the biggest thing for a girl. Everyone gets their daughter married. There is societal pressure. Parents worry they won’t get a good [marriage] proposal once she’s too old.”
“Parents feel that girls are a liability,” Tuladhar says. “Once they get married, their responsibility is over.”
In nearby Sabaila village, a group of children hang over the fence of Keheru Yadav’s home, eyeing his visitors. Yadav squats in a courtyard lined with bags of threshed wheat. As he speaks, the burly mustachioed 56-year-old cuddles a toddler grandson close.
When he was younger, Yadav worked for four years in Malaysia. “When I returned, my eldest son said: ‘You are old, I will go now,’” he says.
Today, all three of his sons work in Qatar, sending home scant sums to support their families and parents. Yadav’s youngest child, a 15-year-old daughter, is soon to be married.
Of his four children, the boys all dropped out of school by class four; only his daughter stayed on for lower secondary.
“We put a lot of pressure on her to study [further] but she didn’t want to,” Yadav says. “I took a loan to pay the fees, my son sends money and we use it to pay back the loan.”
Yadav is in no doubt that with more education his daughter could have secured a better marriage.
“The family [of the groom-to-be] isn’t bad,” he says. “They have one bigha [6,773 square metres] of land and the boy is studying. But if she had more education she would have done better.”
Once their daughter made it clear she was done with school, the family had little choice but to have her married. Ram Pyari, Yadav’s wife, says, “The boy’s family had just one look and wanted [their son] to marry her.” She is beautiful and looks grown up, adds Ram Pyari, with a note of pride. Keeping such a mature-looking girl at home would have caused problems in the community.
The fear is never precisely expressed, but families of an unmarried maturing woman worry she will engage in a sexual relationship or be a magnet for rape.
At a neighbouring home, Usha Kumari Yadav (no relation to Keheru Yadav; Nepali family names refer to their caste) is making clothes on a sewing machine while her aged father-in-law sits nearby. Her children – a daughter and two sons – run under foot.
In the household, Usha takes care of the cooking and cleaning. Her parents-in-law handle finances and “outside stuff”. Her husband of a decade has been in Malaysia for the whole of their marriage.
Usha is so shy she has trouble speaking. She laughs nervously and pulls her veil across her face when asked a question. She is either 25 or 29, and is vague on her children’s ages. But what is clear is that Usha is a believer in education.
“If they want to study to class 10, I will support it,” she says. “To 12, that’s fine.”
Usha married when she was in 10th grade but continued her studies through to grade 12. She applied for a job in a public school, and when she didn’t get it, she took up seamstress classes offered by a non-government organisation. She says she’s “thinking about starting a tailoring business”.
Every week on Sunday, her husband calls. “He asks how the kids are doing, how we’re doing – just updates,” she says.
The nearest sealed road is more than an hour away, but Potohr and Sabaila villages are at the epicentre of Nepal’s migration boom. Between 2009 and 2015, migration from Dhanusha district more than doubled to 22,000 permit issuances a year. Today, the district sends more migrants abroad than anywhere else in the country.
In some areas of Nepal, migration has afforded women rare positions of power. Without husbands on the scene, many have become de facto heads of the household – making decisions on finances, child rearing and farm operations. But in the most remote and traditional Terai communities, which place extreme constraints on women, an absent husband can prove to be a stigmatising force.
In this part of Nepal, Maithil women practise ghunghat. The word refers to the veil with which they cover their face when they leave their home, but it also refers to the strict regulationof movement and interactions with those outside the family.
When young women whose husbands are abroad stay with their parents-in-law, they tend to remain inside – like Usha. But sometimes remittances allow for their own home. It is these matriarchal households that can face trouble.
Three years ago, Babita Kumari Yadav got her own house. Her husband has been working in Qatar for a decade, sending money back to educate their children and build a home. Although she is married with three children, neighbours now view Babita as “alone and a single women”.
“The community doesn’t see me in a good way. They don’t talk with me and I don’t go to anyone’s house,” she says. “I have a lot of fights with these villagers. They’re not supporting me and alienate me from everything going on in the village. If [my husband] were here, he would be the guardian of the house. If someone fought me, he’d protect me – now he’s not here so I have to go through all the fighting.”
This is the prospect that worries the next generation of wives and mothers here. Life without their young, educated and more modern husbands is likely to prove difficult – particularly, and ironically, for those educated to know better.
Just three days into her marriage, Apsara has already begun urging her husband to stay and open a shop rather than return to Qatar.
“In my village I used to know everyone. After getting married to a guy here, I can’t break any rules in our society. If I have someone who knows me, who is close, I can discuss things,” she says, explaining that if she makes a mistake she would expect to be able to talk it through with her husband. “It will be difficult if he’s not here – I can’t do so with my in-laws.”
We have been allowed to enter her home and meet with the bride only because both of us are women and outsiders to the community, but we are likely to be the last strangers Apsara talks to for a long time.
“In Maithil tradition, the wife has to stay in the household for two years,” says Ram Dayal Sah, 45, Apsara’s father-in-law and a boisterous father of five who is still giddy over the auspicious match.
Apsara’s groom, Ranjit Kumar Sah, interrupts his father.
“There’s a gradual change in tradition, it’s not as strict as before. I think in two or three months she’ll be able to come out and talk,” he tells us, shyly.
At 23, Ranjit looks far younger than his years, and far too thin to be a labourer. He is drowning in his dress shirt and trousers and, when he speaks, he looks at his hands and feet.
“[My parents] won’t be happy when she goes out and talks to people, but I don’t mind,” he says. That modernity, however, has its limits, and, Ranjit admits, “If I go abroad, she will not be allowed to go outside.”
Ranjit stopped going to school in 10th grade and has made a living as a construction worker in Qatar for two years, but he has some hopes for his wife.
“I would like to support her to continue her education,” he says.
Experience says this is unlikely to happen.
“Now we’re poor and I need grandchildren,” his father interjects, “so let’s see how it goes.”
This article was supported by the International Reporting Project.