On Thin Ice – Talking Child Marriage in Nepal
On Thin Ice
Everest Base Camp the Lazy Way: Day 18
“Nir,” I open, tentatively. We are on the last-but-one night of our trek, insha’allah, sitting in the cold of the village of Phakding, where we stopped on our first day, so, if I’m going to ask Nir any personal questions, I’m going to ask them now. “How old were you when you got married?”
Nir giggles. “Fifteen,” he says.
“Oh,” I say. “And your wife?”
“Oh,” he says. “She was little! Eleven or twelve.”
“Eleven?!” I say, gulping internally. I know, of course, that child marriages are common in Nepal even today, and, at 29, Nir’s a veteran. Hell, at 29 he’s been a father almost as long as I’ve been a mother at 38, and working rather longer too, I imagine.
“Was it arranged by the families?” I ask.
Nir giggles again. This is, clearly, a bloody stupid question. Of course it wasn’t a love marriage, though it’s clear also, from the tone of their phone conversations – embarrassingly, after weeks in Nepal, I understand only a very few words of Nepali – that this child marriage is a love marriage now.
“And you’re happy?” I ask.
“Yes,” he says. “Very happy.”
We are now going into difficult territory and, looking back, I’m not quite sure why I do.
“And your own daughter?” I ask. She is nine years old, and he clearly loves her to bits – we’ve had conversations about eating more protein and fresh veggies to help her grow a little taller, because he’s worried that she’s too small. (Nir is bright enough and earning enough, as was the guy we met in Lombok, to make this advice practicable and meaningful.)
“The same,” he says.
“Eleven?” I say, shocked despite myself.
Maybe I’m mishearing.
I mean, Nir’s a smart guy. He works in the tourist trade. He’s collecting every single one of the English language books I wantonly, extravagantly buy and then discard to bring his English up to the level of his brother’s and become a fully fledged guy.
Surely he can’t be marrying his daughter off while she’s still a child?
“Twelve,” he says.
I’m still hoping we’re lost in translation. “So, she’ll marry when she’s twelve?” I say. “Your daughter will marry when she is twelve?”
“Yes,” Nir says. I look across at Zac. At twelve, he’s still very… well, as Nir described his own child bride, “little”.
“What about school?” I say (ironically, given my own son, of course, is in world school, not real school). I’m still kind of hoping that I’ve misunderstood, and asking a question that doesn’t allow the answer ‘yes’ is a good way to get through.
“Oh,” he says, and he looks a little sad at this point. “She’ll go to school.”
“Will you pay the school fees or will the husband pay?” I ask. (School fees are around 500 rupees ($5.50) per child, per month, or, annualised, almost 15% of the per capita average income — an unimaginable sum for the many, many Nepalis who live on less than $200 a year.)
I’m not quite sure at what point child brides and teen husbands are expected to behave fully as husband and wife, though I’d imagine there’s more enthusiasm from the fifteen-year-old husband than the eleven-year-old bride, and I don’t really want to go there. I don’t, really, want to be here, even.
“I pay,” Nir says.
“Even after they marry?” I ask.
He laughs. Yes, then too. Even after the dowry – goats, apparently — he’ll still be paying the school fees. It’s not like the Sherpa guy who runs our lodge, putting his two daughters through university in the States, but, I guess, for a Newari peasant farmer, it’s a step. A big step.
Like the Bedouin girl we met in the Sinai, Nir’s little girl is being educated. Aged nine, she’s already among the 57% of Nepalese girls and women who can read and write. It’s progress. HUGE progress.
But… such, such a long way to go.
Zac pipes up, “But she’s too young! You can’t…”
I hush him. I wouldn’t, normally. He’s talked about religion with Islamists, politics with diplomats, nuclear fusion with a nuclear physicist – it’s one of the ways he learns as we ricochet around the globe.
But here, I don’t want him to have his say, and I don’t want to say my piece either, because it is not our place.
And this is why…
The custom of child marriage is alien to me. In my moral universe, it’s simply and uncomplicatedly a bad thing, especially for girls, who are forced into motherhood before they are even biologically, let alone emotionally, ready to withstand it.
My own way of life – as a single mother, with multiple partners over her life, who gives out her phone number to strange men she meets on the mountains, is, I would wager, every bit as simply and uncomplicatedly a bad thing to Nir as his willingness to marry off his very young daughter is to me.
Nir has said nothing to me.
I mean, of course he hasn’t. I’m his employer and on any outsider assessment a frank discussion of what he thinks of my sexual morals is unlikely to increase his tip.
I suspect, in fact, that he has asked me very little about my life, other than the whereabouts of my husband (whom I, as usual, have conflated with Zac’s dad and placed in Australia, working, just because it’s easier than explaining the whole shebang), because he knows that he is unlikely to like what he hears and that I am unlikely to like the questions.
And now I have opened this whole can of worms, and I really want it closed.
Zac, however, is horrified. He is twelve himself, and still very much a little boy. “TWELVE?” he says. “That’s way too young.”
“Sweetheart,” I say. “Leave it.”
But, try as I might to move onto other topics, I can’t quite get the child marriage thing out of my head. I don’t want it to change my view of Nir, whom I like immensely, and who’s been an excellent guide.
But it does. It shouldn’t do. But it does.
I’m still incredibly fond of Nir, but there’s a barrier there.
And it’s my fault for putting it up.
We pootle up to Lukla in the morning, to confirm our flights, and, after one night in Lukla, we are through.
This trek, I feel, this wonderful adventure that will stay with me for the rest of my life, is over.
Zac and I have enjoyed a running gag about how high we rank on what he calls the Foul Bachelor Scale, but I have had enough of being foul.
I want to get back to Kathmandu, do our laundry, clear a backlog of work, crystallise some of the stuff that Zac has learnt, see the hawt soldier (in the unlikely event he doesn’t find a better offer up a mountain), sort our China visa, get down to Chitwan to see some rhino over Christmas, do our Christmas shopping, then head to Beijing for New Year.
I also want a Negroni, a blue steak, a green salad with vinaigrette dressing, an English breakfast with crispy bacon and a winter frock, tights and kneeboots that I can wear to the five-star hotel which will undoubtedly serve the aforementioned Negroni (or even — I am yoyoing wildly between fourteen and forty at the moment, ages which have more in common than you would think — a night out in hopefully extremely dim lighting with the age-inappropriate soldier).
And the fact that I’m posting about the run-up to Christmas in January should tell you exactly how well all that went.
If you’re thinking of doing the Everest Base Camp trek, I recommend my Everest Base Camp FAQs.