CASABLANCA, Morocco, May 19 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The massive earthquakes in Nepal will lead to a dramatic rise in child marriage and the trafficking of children as criminals prey on orphans and parents act to protect young daughters, the head of a social welfare organisation predicted on Tuesday.
"Our quake has devastated our country ... Many children have lost both their parents ... they will be more vulnerable," said Anand Tamang, director of CREHPA, a Nepalese group which campaigns against child marriage.
"There will be a dramatic increase in child marriage and trafficking, ... we know the situation will be much worse," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation on the sidelines of an international conference on ending child marriage in the Moroccan city Casablanca.
Tamang said the risk of sexual assault on girls living in tents in Kathmandu since the quake would encourage families to marry off their daughters.
"Rape is taking place. Almost every week we have a case of a young girl being raped by a group of boys (in tents)," he said. "Parents who have young girls will have fear in their minds and they will think the best way to ensure her safety will be to marry her."
Other girls may be married off because their parents have been killed, their families can no longer afford to keep them in school or because their schools were destroyed.
"More than 200 schools have been destroyed. When a young girl is at home the parents will fear for her security so there will be social pressure for the family to marry her off at a young age," Tamang added.
More than 8,500 people were killed in the two quakes on April 25 and May 12, the deadliest natural disaster ever to hit the Himalayan country.
Nepal already has a high level of child marriage with one in 10 girls married by the age of 15 and four in 10 before their 18th birthday, according to U.N. data.
Tamang said the rate was as high as 75 percent in the southern Terai region bordering India.
"Child marriage is a social evil," he added. A girl is "deprived of the chance to enjoy the life of an adolescent ... deprived of her education and her aspirations are diminished."
Campaigners say child marriage also increases the chance of childbirth complications and child brides are more likely to be victims of sexual and domestic abuse.
Tamang said Nepal had been due to launch a national strategy for ending child marriage, but the quakes had disrupted this.
"Preventing child marriage will not be a priority for the government so we have to initiate the priority ..."
Child marriage in Nepal is driven mostly by poverty and parents' desire to protect girls but is aggravated by the dowry system, he said.
"The older a girl gets the more dowry you have to pay to the husband. Poor families marry off girls young so they don't have to pay so much dowry," he said.
Globally, 720 million women alive today were married before their 18th birthday. One in three girls in the developing world are married before they turn 18, one in nine by the age of 15.
Almost 300 delegates from 61 countries are attending the three-day meeting in Casablanca hosted by Girls Not Brides (GNB), which groups more than 450 organisations committed to ending child marriage.
(Reporting by Emma Batha, Editing by Tim Pearce)