At the age of 11 Purni Shah was forced by her family to marry a 25-year-old man. Four years into the marriage, her husband died leaving her a child widow.
Her fate is not uncommon in Nepal, which has one of world’s highest levels of child marriage, according to Nepal’s Demographic Health Survey. Over 63 percent of girls marry before 18, and 7 percent marry before reaching 10, the survey said.
But for those who become widows, the stigma can be overwhelming: They are often looked upon with disdain and suspicion, and even blamed for their husband’s death.
“It’s a cursed life. There’s too much pain and hardship,” 30-year-old Purni told IRIN in the town of Rajbiraj in Saptari District, 400km southeast of Kathmandu in the Terai region, where child marriage is particularly common. “I don’t want to live like this any more,” she said.
Fifteen years after her husband died, people refer to her as `bekalya’ (child widow) and she is denied even the most basic rights.
Child widows fare much worse than other widows, often finding themselves marginalised, according to rights activists.
In Saptari District alone, there are an estimated 1,000 such women or girls. However, there is little awareness of the issue.
Only one NGO - Women For Human Rights-Single Women’s Group (WHR) - is currently working on the problem.
A group of widows gather together to discuss the challenges facing their group, and the social stigma impacting their group
Photo: Naresh Newar/IRIN
A group of widows gather together to discuss the challenges facing their group
“The `bekalayas’ suffer terribly in this conservative society which stigmatises them and sets too many rigid rules to control them,” Madhvi Shah, a WHR activist, told IRIN.
Banned from wearing new or colourful clothes (white clothes or a sari are socially compulsory for widows), child widows are barred from eating fish or meat, remarrying, and even showing their faces in the early mornings to “prevent bad luck”.
They are also forbidden to attend weddings or other social functions, in case they bring bad luck.
“We are treated worse than animals,” Shradha Mandal, who married when she was eight and widowed before her 16th birthday, said.
To make matters worse, Shradha has no citizenship, making her a virtual refugee in her own country: In male-dominated Nepal, citizenship is acquired only after reaching 18 and on the recommendation of a father, brother or husband.
A new law in 2008 allows citizenship recommendations to come from females, but it has not yet been implemented in practice, according to activists.
Mandal has no proof of her marriage, and therefore no rights to her husband’s land or property. Instead, she has to survive on food provided by her mother.
However, thanks to WHR empowerment training, some `bekalayas’ in Saptari District are starting to speak out and demand a voice.
“I have not lost all hope of starting a new life,” 20-year-old Rekha Chaudhary said, explaining that she had started defying the strict Hindu rules in her village, Bisariya.
|It’s my life and I am not afraid any more.|
“The first step is to make them more self-confident and aware of their legal and human rights,” said WHR’s Shah, explaining that the training was already having an impact.
Kumar Deo, whose husband died when she was only 16, recalled how she started to break the taboo by wearing colourful clothes, put on red bangles and started to walk around freely whenever and wherever she wanted.
“In the beginning, I was very scared but as the news about our defiance came out in the local media, that gave me strength,” Deo said with a smile, adding that she was now encouraging others like her to stand up for their rights.
Backed by WHR, dozens of widows like Deo are now forming their own self-help groups.
“It’s my life and I am not afraid any more,” said 17-year-old child widow Shanti Devi Mandap, married when she was 12 and now looking for a job.