Child marriage is a social evil that has plagued our country for generations on end. Despite being illegal for nearly a century, the regressive practice prevails in our society and Covid-19 has only made children more vulnerable.
A United Nations Population Fund report projects an additional 13 million child marriages as a result of the pandemic. Poverty induced by or escalated due to the pandemic remains the biggest reason for this spike. Families are resorting to child marriage to evade the financial burden of raising daughters. Younger brides also command a higher bride price. In the Pathardi district of Ahmednagar, the sex ratio is 927, making it difficult for young men to find a bride. This has driven up instances of child marriage, and in many cases, the girl’s parents are paid by the boy’s family.
Calls about suspected cases of child marriage received by the Ahmednagar team of Childline India (1098) have almost quadrupled since the pandemic. The district helpline which received 29 such calls between April 2019 and March 2020, fielded 110 calls between April 2020 and March 2021. A representative explained how they contact local police with recorded details and visit the spot with the designated child welfare officer, upon receiving a call. The parents/guardians are made to submit in writing that they will wait until the girl turns 18 before getting her married. They also have to go to a child welfare committee for counselling.
The Prohibition of Child Marriage Act of 2006 sets 18 as the marriageable age for girls and 21 for boys, but the law does not apply to engagements. This is a loophole that families often exploit. In Telangana, a 14-year-old alerted Childline when her parents decided to get her married to a 30-year-old. According to G Nirmala, a Childline representative, the family insisted that it was “just an engagement” but the girl started crying upon their arrival because she wanted to study.
The closure of schools has also left young ones vulnerable. Lockdown weddings go unnoticed by officials and NGOs. Many parents who are afraid of what might happen to their daughters if they were to die of Covid see marriage as a way of protecting their daughters from being orphaned.
M Jayam of Salem People’s Trust said that weddings now cost lesser owing to various restrictions. Thus, economically disenfranchised families see the lockdown as an opportunity to marry off their underage children.
In Krishna District, Child Welfare officials formed teams with village volunteers and Anganwadi workers which helped prevent 51 child marriages in six months.
Meanwhile, Priyanka Berwa, an 18-year-old girl from Ramthara started a campaign against child marriage called the Dalit Adivasi Pichhada Varg Kishori Shiksha Abhiyan. Campaigners plastered slogans against child marriage, conducted street plays and convinced other girls to join them. The movement now has over 1000 girls aged 13-18 who campaign door-to-door despite pushback.
Though local communities have worked hard to remain vigilant and prevent child marriage, authorities need to get involved. The Indian government has not maintained comprehensive data on this situation. It needs to conduct surveys and gather data to understand the ground realities of child marriages in India during the pandemic in order to tackle the issue effectively so that society isn’t robbed of educated women and young girls of their dreams.
This article has been written by Pravallika Manju for The Paradigm
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