Gyani Devi lives in Saptari, a district in the eastern region of Nepal. Like most Nepali parents, she was elated when her son married a beautiful girl of 14 – Punam. Immediately after the marriage, everyone expected Punam to get pregnant. Although nothing was spelled out, it was understood that Punam would conceive as quickly as possible, which would allow her husband to move abroad in search of employment.
According to the National Economic Survey (2015-2016) carried out by the Ministry of Finance, close to 3.5 million Nepalis left the country in the last decade in search of foreign employment. In many cases, boys as young as 15 fly abroad, and their families prefer to wed them off before they leave. This also escalates instances of child marriages and teen pregnancies.
This was what happened with Punam, and she soon became pregnant. Gyani considered herself to be the luckiest woman on earth – but this happiness did not last long. Punam, who was just 15, suffered major complications during her delivery and could not be treated at the district hospital.
Gyani blamed herself for her daughter-in-law’s pitiable condition. Although she knew that teen pregnancy could lead to health hazards, she did not believe it as she gave birth to her first child before she turned 14. However, Gyani understood the ill effects of child marriage when Punam fainted due to excessive bleeding. “I held Punam’s hand and prayed the whole way to the big hospital,” says Gyani, “That was when I realized how important it is for girls to reach an appropriate age for marriage and childbirth,” she adds. Gyani only stopped trembling when she was informed that Punam had given birth to a girl and was out of danger.
While Gyani regrets this incident, she has also learnt an important lesson. “Had it not happened, I would never have understood how terrifying early marriage can be. I nearly lost my daughter-in-law and granddaughter due to it!” Gyani shares. Gyani now narrates this incident while raising awareness against child marriage in her community. As a member of the Village Child Protection Committee (VCPC), Gyani is actively engaged in awareness raising and campaigning against child marriage and for school enrollment.
While campaigning for enrollment, she comes up with another example. After the hospital in the city saved Punam’s life, Gyani resolved that she would help her daughter-in-law study. With Gyani’s support, Punam passed her school leaving certificate. Gyani then sent her to Kathmandu for her studies. Punam left her daughter with her mother-in-law and spent years in the capital pursuing higher education. She returned home after her higher secondary education and continued studying. She is currently in the final year of her graduation, and also works as a volunteer for Save the Saptari, an implementing partner of Save the Children.
Gyani is proud of her daughter-in-law, and vows to support her in everything she does. “Illiteracy, ignorance and cultural practices are to be blamed for the tragedy of early marriage that Punam suffered. I will inspire her to dream big and make her dreams come true,” she says resolutely. Gyani also has high hopes for her granddaughter, who attends the Early Childhood Care and Development (ECCD) Center. “My granddaughter will get married only after she lives her dreams,” she adds.
Gyani Devi is an inspiration for all mothers-in-law, who can better the lives of their daughters-in-law. Early marriage should not keep any girl away from the opportunity of education. To ensure this, the Every Last Child campaign in Saptari will also work to encourage families to provide their daughters-in-law with the best opportunities in life.