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KATHMANDU, Nepal – Traditional practices, poverty, last year's massive earthquake and Nepal's ongoing political instability mean child marriages remain a serious problem in the country, where 10 percent of the girls marry before they are 15, even though the government says it is making progress to combat the problem, rights groups say.
New York-based Human Rights Watch said government indifference means it has not taken the concrete steps needed to achieve the goal of completely stopping the practice in Nepal, which has the third-highest rate of such marriages in Asia after Bangladesh and India.
Nepalese government officials, however, said the Himalayan nation has made significant progress in stopping child marriage and has new policies and laws to address the issue, including a new law that says both men and women have to be 20 before they can legally marry.
But child-rights groups say the earthquake that killed thousands and made millions homeless, plus the country's ongoing political instability, is making the situation worse in one of the poorest nations in the world.
A report released by Human Rights Watch on Thursday said the government has not done enough to end the practice of child marriage, adding there was little evidence of the government working effectively to try to prevent child marriage or mitigate the harm that married children experience.
The report "Our Time to Sing and Play" said that although child marriage has been illegal in Nepal since 1963, researchers found that "police rarely act to prevent child marriage or bring charges, and almost never do so unless a complaint is filed. Government officials often officially register child marriages, even though child marriage is a crime."
The report said a majority of the children who marry young were from Nepal's Dalit or indigenous communities, reflecting the greater prevalence of child marriage in marginalized and lower-caste communities. It said poverty, lack of access to education, child labor, social pressures, and dowry practices were among the factors driving child marriage.
The last survey by the government in 2011 found that 41 percent of girls married before the age of 18. According to UNICEF, the U.N's child protection agency, 37 percent of girls married before the age of 18 and 10 percent were married before the age of 15.
Sunmaya Tamang, now 23, married when she was 14 and gave birth to a boy the next year.
"I was not aware there are laws that say we cannot marry young. Nobody told us or tried to stop us," said Tamang, adding that marrying at that age meant she was not able to finish her schooling and was forced to work in a carpet factory to support her family. She now works cleaning houses in Kathmandu to help her family.
"If I was able to complete school, I would have a better job, better life," she said.
She would not say if her parents forced her into the early marriage. Many such marriages are arranged by parents who try to find suitable grooms when their daughters are still very young.
It is rare for a girl to complain to the authorities even if they know their marriage is illegal, fearing that would get their parents in trouble. And even if they do, police are reluctant to act, said Rashmila Shakya of Child Workers In Nepal, a children's rights organization.
"Police and authorities give least priority to child marriage cases because it is just accepted reality for them," Shakya said.
The earthquake that struck in April last year not only killed about 9,000 people, but also made nearly 4 million people homeless, which according to Shakya has made the situation worse.
"Families in the earthquake-hit areas are desperate. They want to marry off their daughters so they have one less mouth to feed," Shakya said, adding no surveys have been carried out to find out how prevalent that is, but the number is believed to be significant.
Political instability — the ninth government in 10 years took power last month — and ethnic troubles, which mean a constitution that was adopted last year is still not fully enforced because minority groups oppose it, also deflect attention from the problem.
Shakya said as the country, politicians and bureaucrats struggle with one crisis after another, protection of children's rights does not get the priority it deserves.
Government officials deny the charges and say the country is making good progress.
Dr. Kiran Rupakhetee at the Ministry of Women, Children and Social Welfare, said that includes changing the legal age of marriage to 20 for both men and women as part of a government policy to end child marriage. Earlier, exceptions were allowed for marriages after the age of 18 if there was parental consent but now there are no exceptions.
Violators can be jailed for three years and fined 10,000 rupees ($95), which is more than the monthly salary for many people.
"For the first time child marriage is protected by the constitution, which says it is illegal," said Rupakhetee, adding the government this year also adopted a national strategy plan to end child marriages.
He said the National Demographic Health Survey done in 2001 showed that 40 percent of girls between the ages of 15-19 were married. Similar surveys showed the figure dropping to 32.2 percent in 2006 and to 28.8 percent in 2011.
The strategy plan calls for fighting child marriages by empowering girls, providing them with better education, making families and communities more aware of the laws, and implementing the laws and policies.