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“She was supposed to get married at 13 to a boy that she never met before.”

For many couples across the world, marriage is a romantic union between two people ready to embark on the rest of their lives together. It signifies a new beginning.

But for some in Nepal and India, marriage comes as early as 12 and the spouse is a complete stranger selected by family members. According to data published by UNICEF, 30 percent of women in South Asia aged 20 to 24 married before 18, and 8 percent married before 15. That leaves the region trailing only sub-Saharan Africa for the highest rates of child marriage. 

Belgian photographer Lieve Blancquaert traveled to Nepal and India in 2015 to document child marriages as part of her photo essay, “Wedding Day.” Along with her “Birthday” and “Last Days” series, the essay is part of an effort to capture people around the world as they pass through three milestones in life: its beginning, its end and the moment when two lives are connected. 

“In ‘Wedding Day,’ it was really important to find child marriages,” says Blancquaert, 55, in an interview with Global Journalist. “We all know they exist, but it’s a tremendous taboo and it’s really hard to get in as a journalist, especially with the camera crew.”

With the help of Plan International, a children’s aid group, she photographed arranged wedding ceremonies between adolescents and spoke to those who had married as children. The majority of children married globally are girls wedding older men. Plan International and other groups are working to reduce the number of child marriages, which often lead to early pregnancy, interrupted schooling and fewer economic opportunities for married children.  

Blancquaert spoke to Global Journalist’s Shirley Tay about her time in Nepal and India. Below, an edited version of their conversation:

A young couple, perhaps 16, with their baby at a health clinic in Nepal. (Lieve Blancquaert)

Global Journalist: Tell me about an arranged wedding that you photographed in Nepal.

Blancquaert: One story I remember is of Punam and Ashok, it’s a really sad story. I went first to Punam’s house and it was a tiny, tiny room. Both of her parents died and she lived with her auntie. Nobody knew how old she was, she probably was 15 or 16.

When I asked Punam about how she felt about her wedding [the next day], she was completely stressed. Not because of the boy, she told me. But she realized  that she had to move from her place and live by the rules of her new mother-in-law.

Punam’s husband, Ashok, he was hardly at home because he works in India. He was also a teenager, and I think he was even younger than her.  They didn’t have any clue how old he was – and [in a way] it doesn’t matter how old they are, you see? It had to be done. It’s an arrangement amongst families and communities. It has nothing to do with love.

I remembered when they were sitting next to each other in a huge ceremony that took 3 hours – but they didn’t look once at each other. It was impossible. They were really scared and there was so much stress in that place.

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 GJ: In many parts of South Asia, a girl’s family has to pay the dowry to the boy’s family.  How does that affect people financially?

Blancquaert: Yes, it’s a very old tradition. I met a farmer in West Bengal in India when I was shooting for “Birthday.” He just had his fourth and fifth daughters, and had no sons.

He was crying, and was so unhappy and in shock because his wife had delivered twins girls. He said, “Look, you have to listen to me. The tradition is really tough. I have to pay five dowries to the family of which my children are going to get married, and I have to sell my land. I will become really poor. But that’s not the worst thing – the worst thing is that I’m going to lose all my girls.”

All the girls become a possession of the [husband’s] family and might never go back to their own families. I realized that’s how people view women there. We all know it’s a disaster to be a woman in India when you’re poor. For me, the problem is really linked to the dowry system – because you are merchandise and they have to give you away. You are not human.

GJ: What was one experience that shocked you?

I met a couple in a small clinic in Nepal, and they were really young, like 16, and they had a really small newborn baby. They had troubles with feeding the baby and the girl didn’t feel very well.

I asked the girl, “What can you do to prevent being pregnant again?”

They didn’t understand my question, it was a very strange situation. When I came home we did the translation of the tapes. I discovered that she said to the translator: “What is that woman asking? She’s asking me how to not become pregnant, but I don’t know how I became pregnant.”

She didn’t realize physically how her body works and didn’t have any sexual education. For us, it’s really hard to believe that, but you have to understand that they don’t have internet. They don’t know how to read and write, they’re really poor, they never had any education. How could they know? It’s hard for us to understand, but there are still people in the world who don’t realize how to prevent themselves from becoming pregnant.

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GJ: How did you feel when you were photographing all these girls who were being married off so young?

I feel sad. When I think of Punam, my heart is broken – I have a daughter myself. I also photographed Nunapati, an 18-year-old [Nepali] girl. She was supposed to get married at 13 to a boy that she never met before, but after [aid group] Plan International spoke to her parents, they decided to wait until she was 18.

I witnessed her wedding and realized it was also like a forced marriage. Nunapati didn’t know the boy, she never met him, and they are forced to live together. She was crying badly and was so sad because she realized she had to leave her house forever.

She told me: “I love my mother, I love my father, but what is going to happen next? Where do I go? How will my mother-in-law be?” She was so broken.

 

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