The Nepal government has come in for heavy criticism for not doing enough to end child marriages in the country.
Human Rights Watch (HRW), a New York-based rights group, said that the Nepal government's inaction to curb the practice has caused "deep harm" to both boys and girls across the country. It said the government has failed to take "concrete steps" to achieve its goal.
The Himalayan country vowed to end child marriage by 2020 but recently postponed its target to 2030. The country, which is still reeling from last year's massive earthquake, has the third highest rate of child marriage in Asia.
A 118-page report titled Our Time to Sing and Play: Child Marriage in Nepal, released by HRW on Thursday (8 September) said 37% of Nepali girls marry before turning 18, while 10% marry before reaching 15. It estimated that 11% of the boys too get married in their teens.
Child marriage has been illegal in Nepal since 1963 and the minimum age for both the genders to get married is 20 years. However, traditional practices, poverty and political instability are causing the law from being fully enforced. The report has documented the same along with the devastating consequences of those marriages.
"Many children in Nepal – both girls and boys – are seeing their futures stolen from them by child marriage," said Heather Barr, senior women's rights researcher at HRW. "Nepal's government promises reform, but in towns and villages across the country, nothing has changed."
HRW researchers also found that "police rarely act to prevent child marriage or bring charges, and almost never do so unless a complaint is filed." It said despite the law citing the practice as a crime, government officials in the country were officially registering child marriages.
The report said poverty, social pressure, lack of access to education, child labour and dowry practices were among the factors that has been leading to child marriages. These incidents reportedly take place more prominently among Nepal's Dalit and lower-caste communities.
The rights group interviewed more than 100 people who were married when they were in their teens. It also discovered that some girls chose to get married at a young age to escape domestic violence or poverty, and that there has been a rise in the number of such cases.
"My parents wanted me to marry someone they had chosen. There were two or three proposals. My parents liked them, but I didn't," said a 16-year-old, who eloped with a man she got acquainted with only through phone calls.
The report said many girls did not know child marriage was illegal in the country. Even those who knew the law said they were afraid of lodging a formal complaint out of fear it could bring trouble to their parents.
The HRW documented that many girls were also forced to have children before their bodies were biologically ready.
It added that the earthquake that struck in April 2015 made the situation worse as millions of people became homeless. Although no survey has given numbers, it is believed that families in the earthquake-hit areas are desperate to get their daughters married off so "they can have one less mouth to feed", according to Rashmila Shakya of Child Workers In Nepal, Associated Press reported.
Dr Kiran Rupakhetee from Nepal's Ministry of Women, Children and Social Welfare said the government is changing its policy to end child marriages. Earlier, those above 18, but below 20 years, who got married with their parents' consent were exempted from being charged. But under the new policy, the minister said there would be no exceptions.
Anyone who violated the law would be jailed for three years and fined Nepalese rupees 10,000 ($95), which is more than a month's salary for many in the country.
The news agency reported that Nepal's government has denied HRW's charges and said it was making good progress to end the illegal practice.