10 Powerful Photos That Expose What's At Stake When Child Marriage Is The Norm

Photo: Courtesy of Vincent Tremeau.
The skirt belongs to her mother, the scarf to a friend. The red necklace was a gift ("My grandma bought it for me from the market — it’s my favorite thing in the world"), and her shoes…well, her shoes are her own — but they’re about to be kicked off and discarded somewhere in the field. As Kusum, 15, scoops up the folds of material in her fingers and runs towards the makeshift photo studio, she stumbles and lands face first in the grass. Her friend, Hasina, makes a small noise and steps forward, but Kusum sits back on her heels and grins. Real life has been suspended for the next six hours, and you can see it all over her face.
Girls in Nepal are forced to grow up fast. Far, far too fast. Countrywide, it’s believed 41 per cent of all weddings take place to child brides, but in the time-frozen Terai regions bordering India, that figure may be even higher — local experts believe more than two thirds of teenage girls may be married off before they turn 18. School is dropped and swapped for motherhood, and aspirations buried: dreams tucked to one side as a deeply patriarchal culture reminds every woman, time and time again, that she doesn’t have the right to choose her own future.
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Today, that changes, for a moment — and it’s why Kusum is in her (freshly-grass-stained) costume. As part of an ongoing photographic project created by 32-year-old Vincent Tremeau, and an international campaign to end child marriage by the UNFPA, we’re asking teenage girls from agronomic Kapilvastu to dress up like what they’d like to be when they grow up — if we took prospective husbands out of the equation. Entitled "One Day I Will," the aim is to highlight the limitless potential of young women and illustrate the strength of their ambition.
That, and allow them to be teenagers again — at least for six hours of a single day.
Ahead, meet ten teens from the region and discover the futures they're dreaming about.
Join the UNFPA and DFID’s campaign to end child marriage all over the world at www.unfpa.org #EndChildMarriage.
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Photo: Courtesy of Vincent Tremeau.
One Day I Will… Be A Tailor

Aasha Nefali, 16, Bankaffa

"My mum died while she was giving birth to my brother ten years ago. I was only six years old, but it’s been up to me to raise him ever since. I have to look after my dad too. He’s sick, and struggles with his hearing — plus he drinks every day, which makes things difficult. But there’s nobody else but me around. I have to cope. Not coping isn’t an option. It’s only when I stop for a second that I start to worry. I’m barely literate because I had to leave school as soon as my mum died, and that makes me feel like I’m not going to get anywhere in life. I know I’m going to have to get married soon — but if I could choose, then I’d like to try and wait until I’m 20. If I can find a way to become a tailor, then maybe I’ll have more options. I’m teaching myself numbers at night so that I can measure people for their clothes. I just really, really hope that’s enough."
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Photo: Courtesy of Vincent Tremeau.
One Day I Will… Be A Forest Guide

Laxmi Tharu, 16, Baluhaw

"There’s a huge amount of deforestation near my village, and thinking about it makes me so sad inside. Someone needs to put a stop to it, or we’ll all be in trouble, so I’ve decided that that person should probably be me. It’s think it’s happening because families are getting too big, so they chop the trees down and use the land to build more houses — but it’s just generally really, really bad. So I’m going to complete my studies, and then when I finish school, I’ll start teaching everyone how important it is to save the forests. In the meantime, I go there every morning to collect firewood. I love walking through the jungle. It’s so green.

"Sometimes I feel really scared that I won’t get to do everything I want to in life. My father isn’t very well at the moment — he has some deep wounds in his hands, which happened while he was fixing a truck. So he can’t work, and that puts a huge amount of financial strain on our family. My sister is about 12 months older than me, and until recently, the burden of supporting us all had fallen on her shoulders — so she had to drop out of school and find work. But now she’s married, so I’m the eldest daughter now. And that means it’s all on me."
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Photo: Courtesy of Vincent Tremeau.
One Day I Will… Be A Beautician

Rumani Tharu, 18, Harrahaw

"I’ve always, always wanted to be a beautician, but people think it’s just a matter of doing other people’s makeup — and it’s not. I want to open the first ever beauty parlor in my village. I’ve only ever been to one before — my sister and I went to have our hair straightened in the town nearby. It felt so silky afterwards.

"I haven’t received any proposals yet, and I’ve never had a boyfriend, but I don’t do my makeup to impress guys. I feel happy and proud of myself when I’m wearing kohl or lipstick. Looking good is a positive thing when it makes you feel more confident in yourself.

"But I’m lucky: My parents have told me that when men do start asking me to marry them, I can be the one who decides whether or not to say yes, or whether I’d rather wait a bit longer. Not many girls get that opportunity. All I know that I’d like to be the boss of my own business before I start a family.

"My parents were both bonded laborers until I was three years old, and we were forced to live as slaves to a master who would torture them both in front of me. It was only when he was killed during the civil war that my family was finally free to go. That might be why I don’t like the idea of working for anybody else, I guess. And it’s probably why my parents agree."
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Photo: Courtesy of Vincent Tremeau.
One Day I Will… Be An Air Stewardess

Parbati Tharu, 15, Harrahaw

"I’ve never been on a plane, but I know that I’d love to leave Nepal and travel far, far away — like to India or Dubai. Nobody I know has ever been there, but I’ve seen planes before in the sky, and I’ve read about other countries in books. If you’re in the air, then the sky is the limit. Anything is possible.

"Right now, I go to school with all of my friends, but I worry that I’m not going to be able to stay for very much longer — my family’s current living situation means that I’m going to have to quit and stay home to help my mother with the housework. There’s just so much of it to do, and I know that she’s struggling to cope with it all on her own. I’m the eldest of five children. That means that I have to be the one who eases some of the pressure from my parents’ shoulders.

"I hope I can delay getting married until I’m 22 or 23, but that depends on my parents, too. If I have to leave school, then I really, desperately hope I can leave school to get a job rather than become a wife straightaway. I don’t want to have to give everything up just to wash clothes and sweep floors forever."
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Photo: Courtesy of Vincent Tremeau.
One Day I Will… Be A Police Officer

Rina Tharu, 16, Wajawa

"Women in Nepal are expected to be quiet, and I hate that. You’re either a housewife or you’re a mother, and I don’t think I want to be either of those things. I’d much rather be a police officer and speak my voice. It’s not like I’m against getting married, but I want a husband who hears me, and doesn’t assume he’s always right. If I could marry another police officer, then that would quite cool — we’d make a really powerful team. But teams only work if you both listen to one another, and if you both see the other person’s perspective. I guess I’m just really tired of boys assuming they’re the only ones whose feelings count. They think it’s OK to be mean to girls, or hurt them, and it’s not. That’s not OK at all.

"That’s why the idea of having an arranged marriage appeals to me; as soon as you add feelings to the mix, things get really complicated. I trust my own judgment, but I trust my parents too. I know they have my best interests at heart. Still, my marriage won’t be like theirs — where my mother has to do what my father tells her. Mine is going to be on my own terms, even if I don’t get to choose when it happens."
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Photo: Courtesy of Vincent Tremeau.
One Day I Will… Be A Dancer

Kusum Chaudhary, 15, Bankatta

"All I want to do is dance. Whenever I’m sad, I go into the mustard fields behind my house and dance and twirl and spin in the yellow flowers. It makes me feel lighter — like everything is going to work out OK in the end. I’ve never had any lessons, but I think I’m getting better by just practicing on my own.

"I left school when I was about 13, so I spend a lot of time worrying because I don’t think I’ve had enough education to do the things I’d like to do. I feel out of control a lot of the time, but I never talk about this stuff with anyone — not even my friends. Feelings aren’t encouraged here. You just get on with things. So I try not to think about my future too much, because it makes me scared. Like, what if I’m made to marry the wrong person? That happens all the time, and you can’t do anything about it.

"Life is harder here for girls. When I was seven my dad died, but I wasn’t allowed to attend the funeral because I was a girl. I don’t think that’s fair. I should have been there. He was my dad, and I miss him every day. Life would be so much easier if he was still around."
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Photo: Courtesy of Vincent Tremeau.
One Day I Will… Be A Radio Presenter

Sunita, 18, Bankatta

"A lot of the time I feel like nobody hears my voice. But if I was on the radio, then I would be able to play all my favorite folk music — and people would have to listen to me, too. I could talk about my experiences, and my friends’ experiences, and people would pay attention. I know so many girls who were made to get married to men they don’t like, or made to get married when they were too young, but there’s nothing they can do about it. As soon as the ceremony is over, it’s like all of their power has been taken away. And none of us have very much power to begin with."
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Photo: Courtesy of Vincent Tremeau.
One Day I Will… Be A Teacher

Indrawati Yadav, 19, Fulawapur

"I’m ‘fixed’ to a man, which means half my marriage ceremony has been performed, although I don’t have to live with my new husband for another couple of months. The first ceremony took place when I was 17, and lasted two days. I remember spending hours getting ready — my aunts painted my hands and feet with henna, and I oiled my hair before wearing an embroidered red sari with gold jewelery stacked up to my elbows. Then a long red veil was placed over my face. Afterwards, I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror, and just thought ‘I’m so red’. I looked like a tomato.

"I didn’t speak to my new husband once that day — and I didn’t see his face, either. It’s considered bad luck for the bride to see her husband, although he got to see me. Kneeling on the ground, the Hindu priest lifted my veil to apply vermillion powder to my forehead, and that was his chance to check my appearance. But I had to keep my eyes on the ground and bite my lip to stop sobbing. I was surrounded by my new husband’s relatives, and I suddenly realized that they were my new family now. If they didn’t like me, or if they weren’t nice people, then it was too late. My mother had to keep taking me to one side and touching up my makeup because my tears were making it run down my cheeks.

"The final ceremony takes place this year and I can’t stop thinking about it. As soon as it’s over I’ll have go and live with my husband and start having his children — and I don’t feel ready for that. I don’t want this life. I just wish it could all take place later so that I could actually be a teacher, even for a little while."
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Photo: Courtesy of Vincent Tremeau.
One Day I Will… Be An Accountant

Sheskalo Pandey, 17, Pandahawa

"Money is a big problem in this community. So many people still keep all their savings in boxes underneath their beds, and lots of families in my village can barely afford to eat two meals a day. That’s why I want to be an accountant: Somebody needs to show everyone how banks work and how they can protect themselves and their incomes. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my life, it’s that you need to be able to support yourself. I think that’s doubly important if you’re a girl, because you’re doubly disadvantaged. Half the time, our families won’t even let us go outside — and that isn’t fair. I’m determined to change things.

"My parents used to discriminate against me and my brother. They didn’t want to send me to school for nearly as long as him, or to give me the same opportunities — mostly because of money. They said that it was a waste to pay money for my education, when we were struggling so much to afford food to eat. They wanted me to get married. But I’ve had enough of being treated like I’m worth less because I’m a girl, so 18 months ago, I started my own business to pay for my school fees. After finishing my chores every day, I sit in the porch and make rugs and bowls and calendars and incense, then at weekends I take them to the local market and sell them to people for a fair price. Now I’ve saved enough money to pay for an evening course in commerce and computers. It’s hard work sometimes, but I don’t mind. Dropping out of school and getting married would have been so much worse."
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Photo: Courtesy of Vincent Tremeau.
One Day I Will… Be A Beautician

Suman Chaudhary, 18, Bithuwa

"I bought this makeup box in the local market for 1,500 rupees [$14] — but I don’t know why I’m bothering to plan my career, because I’m getting married this year. I know the man has been chosen, but the ceremony to make the engagement official hasn’t taken place yet. That’ll happen in a couple of months' time, and then there’s no going back. I’m so nervous about it that sometimes I start shaking. I don’t know what food he eats or what he looks like or what his bad habits are. All I know is that he’s in Year 12, and that soon he’ll be my husband. But I could never turn around and say to my family, ‘I don’t want to do this’. I can’t even imagine doing that.

"When my uncle and my father told me that they’d told me they’d met the man I was going to marry, I immediately felt sick to my stomach. Then I felt angry because they’d fixed my future without consulting me. But nobody ever apologized. My mum and I are close, but she didn’t even say anything — just that the proposal was a good one, and that I would be OK. I wish I knew how to believe her."