Thousands of Nepali girls leave school every year to get married, missing out on their education, the government says. Parents are often unaware of the impact that trying to save the money spent on education can have on the future of their daughter.
"We need to strongly lobby against early marriage by implementing the laws we already have," Dibya Dawadi, deputy director of the Nepali Department of Education, told IRIN. "We know there are a huge number of young married girls, but it is difficult to get the exact number."
Over 34 percent of new marriages in the Himalayan nation involve brides under 15 years of age despite a ban on the practice, according to the Ministry of Women, Children and Social Welfare.
NGOs say the government has failed to control child marriage, particularly in the country's southern Terai region. In some districts in eastern Terai, like Rupendehi, Dhanusha and Mahottari, more than 50 percent of marriages involve girls under the age of 12. "We recently heard that a five-year-old girl was married," Helen Sherpa, an education specialist with World Education, an international NGO, told IRIN.
Dowries are a major concern. If the girl is particularly young, nuptials between the families are routinely undertaken in secret because a lower dowry is paid.
"The younger the bride is, the cheaper the dowry," Sherpa said. Many impoverished families in the Terai region often have no choice but to pay a higher dowry for an older girl to marry their son. Prices range from US$200 to $20,000, depending on the age of the bride, and can be prohibitively expensive if she is a qualified teacher, engineer or doctor.
Although the number of child marriages seems to have stayed constant in the past decade, some changes are taking place. Daughters are now sent to the husband's family only when they reach the age of 16, but the question remains as to whether they can still attend school after they marry.
"My daughter was 12 and now she is 17, and old enough to go her husband's family," said a woman who asked not to be identified. She was aware that child marriage and the dowry system are now illegal in Nepal, but said such arrangements between families continued in Mahottari District, 300km east of the capital, Kathmandu, where a high number of child marriages still take place.
"Early marriage should be stopped because it not only affects their [daughter's] education but also their health," said Sumon Tuladhar, an education specialist at the UN Children's Agency (UNICEF). "In addition, that also has an impact on their self-confidence and empowerment. Many children are victims of early marriage - after marriage they hardly come to school, and even if they do, their performance is very poor."
Getting girls to stay in school is not always easy According to the UN, Nepal has achieved gender parity of about 0.99 percent in primary education enrolment, but even government officials are sceptical about the number.
"Gender parity in education is only limited to enrolment, not retention, continuance and performance," Dawadi said. The government realized it needed to do more about getting girls back into the classroom, she noted, but it should also work on ways to eliminate discrepancies in the quality of their education.
More than 240,000 children do not attend school according to government figures, and officials believe most of them are girls, especially those who were married at a young age.
"Child marriage changes the children's life options, especially their educational investment by parents," said Sherpa. "As soon as she becomes someone else's "property", the parents show little willingness to invest in their education as they grow. This is total abuse of their rights."
Public school fees are more affordable at the primary level but the higher grades are often beyond the reach of parents. Nepal's literacy rate for its population aged 6 to 15 years is 60.9 percent, of which 72 percent are boys, but only 51 percent are girls.
The literacy rate declines as children get older and the discrepancy is wider - among those aged 15 and above literacy is at 56.5 percent, with around 71.6 percent being young men but only 44.5 percent being young women, according to the government's Central Bureau for Statistics.
Some experts believe that the only way to stop early marriage is to prosecute the families. "Prevention is important because once the marriage has happened, it is difficult to change that," said Sherpa. Putting a mother in jail is not helpful when she has children at home, but the crime will not go away if such steps are not taken, she added.
A recent report by Plan UK, an international charity, notes that globally some 10 million girls under the age of 18 marry each year.