Rain clouds hung over the Kathmandu Valley in Nepal on the morning of April 25, 2015, soaking the hillside villages. In Kagati, a small farming community on the outskirts of the capital, Durga, 25, was boiling potatoes from his field, when a deafening noise rang out and his house began to shake violently. He and his wife, Niruta, 23, ran across the wildly shifting ground, but then he stopped in his tracks — in the confusion, the couple had left their newborn daughter inside. “I grabbed her and quickly jumped off the terrace on the hill,” he recalled. The house collapsed behind him. “One second later and the child and I would have been killed. That day we were lucky.” Many others were not.
Nepal had suffered a 7.8 magnitude earthquake that killed more than 8,000 people and left hundreds of thousands, like Durga and Niruta, homeless.
I first met the young couple on their wedding day, eight years earlier. They were just 14 and 16 years old. Nepal has one of the highest rates of child marriage in the world — 41 percent of girls and 11 percent of boys marry before age 18. That day, theirs was just one of several adolescent weddings held in the village temple. Durga’s father hadn’t liked the idea of his son’s abandoning his education and marrying young, but after Durga’s mother died, the family needed help in both the home and the fields. So they found a suitable young bride.
Niruta, 14, at her wedding to Durga, 16, in 2007. The vice principal at the local school, Charkraman Shrestha Balami, says, “It is certain that people who marry early will be caught in the vicious cycle of poverty.”
Niruta now has three children. Here, she breastfed her youngest child, 11-month-old Kusum, inside their shed, where she spends the majority of her time caring for her children and animals.
When I returned to check in on the young couple in 2014, the long days spent farming along the impossibly steep slopes had aged them. Yet they were determined to give their children, then 5 and 8, a better life. “I will not let them marry early,” Durga told me. “If they don’t study, they will become like us — or worse.”
He was right to worry. In the wake of natural disasters, rates of child marriage increase. How this happens became clear to me in February, when I visited the couple again, this time to see how they had fared since the earthquake.
They had barely been able to cope with life’s ordinary hardships, let alone an earthquake. Niruta told me that some months before the tremors, she had discovered she was pregnant with her third child. Without telling her husband, she attempted to have an abortion, a common recourse for girls who are forced to marry young and never learn about family planning. The procedure led to extensive blood loss, and Niruta feared for her life.
“I had pain all over my stomach,” Niruta explained. “I cried, saying, ‘I am about to die!’ ” The fetus remained unharmed, and six months later, she realized that she was still pregnant. She delivered a baby girl just weeks before the earthquake.
Shortly afterward, Durga’s father died after a three-year battle with cancer. Attempts to treat his illness left the couple with crippling debt. Making matters worse, the father had been in the middle of a legal battle over farmland he bought in a handshake deal. Young, uneducated and inexperienced, Durga and Niruta lost the case, and half their land — a devastating blow.
Add to all of this a catastrophic earthquake, and one can easily see how hopes for their children’s futures can be dashed. “I’m ashamed to say, at that time, we didn’t even have food to eat,” Durga said. Beside him sat his oldest child, Sumitra. At 10 years old, she is still too young to marry off in this community — but not by much.
Durga and Niruta’s children, Sushil, 7, and his sister Sumitra, 10, waited for their parents on rubble and debris from the 2015 earthquake.
Anita was carried to the home of the groom.