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Artículo "My father found me a husband when I was two years old” Culture

Culture

"My father found me a husband when I was two years old”

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david perez

23 Noviembre 2016 22:52

Punam thinks she’s 16, but she’s not sure. She tries counting with her fingers before remembering she doesn’t know how to count. Her aunt agrees that 16 sounds about right, though there’s a chance she’s still just 15.

Punam is 16 – or thereabouts – and she’s getting ready to marry her fiancée, Ashok. She’s only seen him in a photo that she keeps on her phone. A dark, grainy image that conveys the emptiness and sadness of a pre-arranged life. Ashok is as young as Punam.

“I’m afraid I do not know what awaits me. It was my uncle who found Ashok and made the arrangement with his family. I know I have no other option. It is the community that decides what happens to me and my two sisters. My family is unable to support me and Ashok earns 100 dollars a month sewing bags in a factory. My life is definitely going to be better,” Punam states hopefully, before going to meet Ashok for the first time at the altar.

Punam’s story is one among thousands. Her destiny was decided the day she was born into a poor, illiterate family – on the bottom rung of the unjust caste system ladder – in a remote Nepalese village.

Punam is 16 and she’s going to marry Ashok. She’s only seen him in a photo saved on her phone. Their marriage was arranged by their families. The first time they meet will be at the altar


© Lieve Blancquaert - Plan International

The forced union between Punam and Ashok might seem shocking enough, but there are other stories that will make your skin crawl.

Rubi is four and has already spent half her life married. Her sister Asa was given in marriage at the age of two. The eldest, Puja, is now 14, but she holds the record: she was promised in marriage when she was just a one-and-a-half-year-old baby.

What might seem to us an antinatural and abhorrent practice is an extremely old and widespread tradition in Nepal – one to which children are condemned from the day they’re born. Flemish photojournalist Lieve Blancquaert travelled to Nepal with the NGO Plan International to document this reality. What she saw there made a huge impact on her.

Rubi is four and has already spent half her life married. Her sister Asa was given in marriage at the age of two


© Lieve Blancquaert - Plan International

During her visit, Blancquaert met Sanju, a father to four daughters, of whom three were already engaged to be married. Sanju and his family are part of the Mali caste – one of the lowest rungs of the hierarchy.

"They do not realise it. How could they? They were much too young. It has always been this way; we were doing it at the time of my grandfather. We are only a very small group, and it is not easy to find a suitable man for my daughters. God granted me girls. It's my destiny, but I love them a lot," Sanju says, while one of his daughters plays on his lap.

Nepal, a small country sandwiched between two giants – India and China – lacks much of the infrastructure that we take for granted.

Immersed in a deeply corrupt system, with huge overpopulation, poor education, and frequently beset by natural disasters, Nepal suffers greatly from human rights abuses.

The statistics speak for themselves. More than 42% of Nepalese marry before they reach 18 – the minimum age required by law. Traditions and the unjust yet deeply ingrained caste system tend to override any legal considerations.

More than 42% of Nepalese marry before they reach 18 – the minimum age required by law


© Lieve Blancquaert - Plan International © Lieve Blancquaert - Plan International

"I get my sons-in-law from other towns, and I'm especially careful to choose a good home. This is most important. I speak with the boy's father and we set a date and dowry. Of course, they will cry when they leave. We too will cry. They will stay with us until they are older, but we know from the first day of their lives that they will have to leave eventually."

With those words Sanju settles the matter of his young daughters’ fates. However, his own story was quite different from the one he has planned for his daughters.

Sanju was married from the age of two. But he decided to break with the tradition that he imposes on his daughters. He fell in love with Devi, his current wife, and paid a fine to break off his marriage and marry for love.

“If necessary, my daughters will do the same,” Sanju says. But he adds that “ending a marriage is very expensive.”


© Lieve Blancquaert - Plan International © Lieve Blancquaert - Plan International

In the remote village where Sanju and his family live, nobody knows how to read or write. Nobody goes to school.

“What use is education and knowledge? The girls tend to the pigs and prepare the food,” Sanju reflects.

Sanju is unaware that not sending his children to school is as much a crime as marrying them off before they turn 18. When he finds out, he confesses his surprise.

“What’s done is done. I can’t go back. But I don’t want to go to jail. I will do things differently with my youngest daughter,” Sanju promises.

What use is education and knowledge? The girls tend to the pigs and prepare the food

In a country where marriages are arranged for children of both sexes, women are still stigmatised and condemned to lives in which they’re deprived of choice and economic independence.

It’s a life sentence that endures even after the husband dies. A life sentence that compels us to ask how many more years must pass until abusive traditions disappear and human rights finally prevail over deeply ingrained customs.


© Lieve Blancquaert - Plan International © Lieve Blancquaert - Plan International

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