The groom remembers his wedding day only in snapshots, like a dream that comes back in fragments.
A band played Hindi songs. He rode in a rented van, his family dancing alongside. Guests dined on rice, dal and potato fritters known as pakoras, a food for special occasions.
It looked, he was told, much like the wedding of his older brother, who was now in Saudi Arabia working to feed his two children. The groom had already started to think about how he would support his own family.
The marriage had been arranged by his parents, so it wasn’t until he lifted his bride’s veil to apply the ceremonial vermilion powder that he saw her face for the first time. She looked pretty, he says now, recalling that her skin was a shade darker than his.
The next day, he went back to school. He was 9 years old.
Children grow up fast in western Nepal, a land of mud-walled farming villages and golden paddy fields stretched beneath a low, dusky sky.
Boys not yet old enough to shave begin driving bullock carts, feeding the cows and helping in the fields. Girls watch over babies scarcely younger than themselves, carrying them to and fro in toothpick arms ringed with tiny bangles.
Before long, according to a custom that has been observed for generations, it is time for the children to marry.
Nepalese law prohibits marriage before age 18 — the family asked that the name of the groom, now 12, be withheld to shield him from authorities — but the practice remains common in the poor, predominantly Hindu communities along the border with northern India.
In the district of Rupandehi, according to a 2011 national health survey, roughly half of married men said they wed during their teenage years or earlier.
“It is a way for families to control the boys’ sexuality, and for poor families to get rid of one of their obligations,” said Ramsharan Reidas, a 37-year-old community activist who was married at 7. “If the boy is married, it’s like he is an adult and he should be taking care of himself.”
There are also financial imperatives. Aid workers say that the younger the groom, the less a bride’s family must offer as dowry.
Although the bride usually doesn’t come to live with her young husband until three to five years after the wedding ceremony, married village boys are easy to spot with their gold necklaces and Indian-made motorcycles, usually dowry gifts from in-laws.
It’s well established that for girls, particularly in South Asia where it is most prevalent, child marriage unleashes a lifetime of trauma: high dropout rates, unwanted pregnancies, childbirth injuries and other maladies.
Less attention has been paid to child grooms — mainly because there are fewer of them. The United Nations estimates that 156 million men worldwide were married before age 18, one-fifth the number of women.
Yet recent surveys by aid workers in western Nepal have begun to reveal the extent of the physical and psychological strain on boys thrust into adult relationships, even those who aren’t yet living with their wives.
School attendance rates drop after age 13 as boys join the work force, many crossing the open border to become laborers in India’s booming cities. The desperation is greatest among families who belong to the lowest rung of the Hindu caste system — the Dalits, or “untouchables.”
“There are health problems, social problems, pressure to show they can make money,” said Gita Kumari Shah, a monitoring officer with CARE, the Atlanta-based humanitarian agency, which has launched a campaign to reduce child marriage in Nepal.
“Emotionally, they are trapped between being a man with a wife, and a boy living under his parents.”
Parashuram Harijan, now 31, with a round face and dark, deep-set eyes, recalled that on the day of his nuptials, when he was 9, his Dalit family dressed him in an elaborate dhoti, a long piece of fabric wrapped around the legs and knotted at the waist. After the ceremony, he had to go to the bathroom, but he couldn’t figure out how to unravel the fabric.
He ended up urinating on himself in his wedding finery.
When his wife moved in three years later, she had grown taller than him. Harijan suspected she was older than he had been led to believe. At night he lay with her on a bed padded with straw, but when she drew close, his 12-year-old body froze in confusion.
“I was overwhelmed,” he said. “I couldn’t do what was expected of me as a married man.”
Like many young brides, the girl felt she had to bear children to cement her place in her in-laws’ home. She grew restless. Harijan learned that when he was away, she would wear makeup and flirt with other boys in the village.
The marriage broke up within a year.
“After the wedding, everyone tells you, ‘You have responsibilities now,’” said Harijan, who remarried and has three children. “The dreams and energy you have as a young person go away. You are tormented by the responsibility of having a wife and family.”
Slowly, attitudes are changing. In the villages surveyed by CARE, families said they were delaying marriages by an average of two to three years compared with a generation ago. Children are starting to voice their preferences — although families don’t always listen.
In Shihokhor, a cluster of thatch-roofed homes at the edge of a vast tract of paddy fields, a crowd of children gathered to watch 16-year-old Deva Reidas get a tattoo emblazoned on his forearm with the name of his bride-to-be, Kalawati. They are to marry in April.
Their parents introduced them last year. Deva, a lanky, confident boy with a gold earring, was immediately struck by Kalawati’s long hair and fair skin. Defying custom, he later went to see her alone, waiting outside her ninth-grade class to exchange a few words before her friends dragged her away, giggling.
He was home for a few days from Mumbai, India’s commercial capital, where he had followed two older brothers to work at a clothing factory for $150 a month. His parents wanted to finalize wedding preparations. Kalawati should move in immediately after the wedding, they told him.
Deva was apprehensive. Could he work in Mumbai with his wife at home? What about his plans to go to the Persian Gulf or Malaysia, where the wages were rumored to be better, once he turned 18?
“Marriage at 18 or 19 would have been better for me,” he said. “I could have been more prepared.”
His grandmother Nirmala, a frail woman wearing a sweatshirt under her patterned sari, shook her head.
“People point fingers if you are not married,” she said. “They say, ‘Your grandson must have some problems.’”
A short distance away, Mathura Dhobi, 20, watched his rosy-cheeked, 3-year-old son waddle around the dirt courtyard of his family’s home, a brick shed with plywood doors.
His wife of eight years, Shivanandani, was inside boiling potatoes for lunch. The couple, their two children, Dhobi’s parents and his three younger brothers were struggling to subsist on the erratic sales of the family’s small rice and onion crops.
“We were very poor,” Dhobi’s father, Shivapujan, said of the decision to marry off his eldest son at 12. “The first proposal that came, we thought that if we refused it, there wouldn’t be another one.” The boy’s ailing grandparents added to the pressure, saying they wanted to see him married before they died.
Dhobi had been a good student and a singer, a classmate recalled, but he dropped out of school around the time of the wedding. When his wife moved in, Dhobi’s mother scolded her endlessly for the way she cleaned dishes and how long it took her to collect the cow dung, a source of fuel.
Dhobi did not speak up to defend his wife. He was still a boy living under his parents’ sagging roof. Unable to find steady work, he helped his father on the farm or found odd jobs hauling sand and dirt.
Both he and his father now say he should have continued his studies. His three younger brothers are still in school, and the family says it has no plans to get them married.
Shivapujan, who had been playing with his grandson, put the boy down.
“If I hadn’t been there, what would you have done?” he asked his son.
Dhobi thought for a moment. “I would not have gotten married,” he said. “Things would have been better for me.”
They sat watching the toddler, neither man saying a word.
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