The prevalence of early marriage in Nepal remains high. UNICEF reports that 37% of girls in Nepal marry before age 18, of which 10% are married by age 15.

In 2016, Human Rights Watch (HRW) published a report on the prevalence of child marriages in Nepal. The main causes of child marriage are poverty and social pressures, with gender-discrimination being a compounding factor in the early marriage of girls. The effects of early marriage are harmful and long-lasting, and this has been found to be true especially of girls. They drop out of school early, thus falling behind on educational and skill-development opportunities. They are also more vulnerable to domestic violence than those who marry later.

The HRW and other reports also reveal another phenomenon: that of ‘love marriages’ that also fall under the rubric of early marriage. In trying to determine causes of ‘love marriage’ (marriage decided independently by the partners) the HRW report states, “Many blamed modern technology – including mobile phones and Facebook – saying that technology encouraged romantic relationships between children that would not have happened previously.”

Other studies have confirmed the danger parents perceive from new technologies. A 2012 study conducted by Save the Children on child marriages pointed to similar findings and that this belief was common among adolescent youth themselves. A landscaping study on adolescent girls conducted by the Department for International Development in Nepal reported that parents said Facebook has a negative impact on young girls, that through it they could meet men who could lure them into doing ‘bad’ things.

It isn’t uncommon for parents to panic over new and changing mediums of communication and the possible corrosion it might cause to existing value systems and ways of life. Anthropologist Laura M. Ahearn in her book Invitations to Love: Literacy, Love Letters, and Social Change in Nepal (2001) wrote of the disruption that was brought on by literacy and the ways it shaped courtship in rural Nepal. She wrote that young people were “applying their newly acquired literacy skills” to write love letters, leading to a rise in elopement. Ahearn also noted that the understanding of love was paradoxical in the context she was studying, in that it gave young people agency over everything, except love itself. In such a cultural context, parents can jump to false conclusions and seek to control the “medium” that is believed to cause these ideas in the first place.

This fear is also fed by media reports of misuse of technology and romance on the Internet. In Chitwan district in Nepal, mothers asked the local administration to tighten access to Facebook in order to prevent “misuse” of the social networking site. In parts of India, the use of mobile phones has been banned for women and girls to keep women “safe from their own desires and choices”.

Where parents perceive the Internet as a danger that encourages eloping, adolescent youth see an opportunity to seek information, connect with each other and explore different aspects of their lives online. In the landscaping study mentioned earlier, adolescent girls in the periphery of Kathmandu were found to priorities recharging their mobile phone credit over buying cosmetics. And, they did so to make calls, take selfies, research for school, listen to music, play games, and use social media and messaging apps.

Traditionally and culturally, the sexuality of Nepali girls and women has always been controlled, especially by limiting their mobility. This is being challenged with the introduction of modern technology because parents and the wider network of guardians aren’t able to monitor everything their daughters do on their phone and online. But they still try. The surveillance of girls’ and women’s activities on the Internet is a common way of keeping them in check against any possible dissidence. The moral policing of women and girls under the garb of ‘protecting’ ijjat (honour) of families has been modified to fit into the new digitally integrated world too.

However, blaming digital media obfuscates the underlying causes of early ‘love marriage’, which are varied and complex. Banning or limiting the use of the mobile phone or the Internet as a solution to early marriage is a simplistic binary argument along the lines of abstinence-only programs to prevent teenage pregnancy (which they don’t).

Trying to police activities on the Internet or altogether banning its access can be more harmful than good. In fact, disapproval of Internet usage can further prevent adolescents from seeking help when they need it most. Young people are less likely to report and seek help for violence they face online if their activities or access to technology is forbidden. [1]Research also shows that young people “are adapting and sometimes thriving as they embrace 21st-century media”.

In fact, the Internet actually allows adolescents access to a wide range of information including on sexual health. A 2015 study by Marie Stopes International[2] (an organization that provides contraception and safe abortion services) found that the main source of information on sexual health among adolescents is the Internet.

What is yet unexamined in Nepal is whether adolescents choosing to elope is an indication of their intention to choose their own partner, as opposed to an obligatory marriage arranged by parents. Also, in conservative societies like Nepal’s, where sex for women before or outside marriage is not acceptable, we must examine how the desire to explore intimacy and sexuality influences the decision to marry early, especially when the legal minimum eligible age for marriage is 20 years, unless one has the permission of one’s “guardians” at 18.

[1] Ruth Lewis, Michael Rowe, Clare Wiper; Online Abuse of Feminists as An Emerging form of Violence Against Women and Girls. Br J Criminol 2016 azw073.doi: 10.1093/bjc/azw073.
[2]Sunaulo Pariwar and Marie Stopes International. Let’s Talk about Sex: Young Adult Sex Survey 2015.