UN warns of sharp spike in child marriages in India

Dangerous side-effects of never-ending lockdown

Society

May 28, 2020

/ By / Mumbai

child marriages in India

Saved by a whisker: The two teenaged girls from Ahmednagar whose families were trying to get them married off have been rescued by child helpline just in time (Courtesy Snehalaya)

Hit hard by the economic misery wrought by the lockdown, poor families in India are turning to marry off teenage girls in order to reduce the cost of running the household. A spike in child marriages is one of the most devastating side-effects of the lockdown.

On May 25, the Childline run by Snehalaya, an NGO in Ahmednagar district in western Maharashtra, received a call from a social worker alerting them of a planned child marriage in Mithasangavi village in Pathardi Tehsil of Ahmednagar district. The moment the call centre received the alert, it rushed its social workers to the village where they were informed about two marriages involving minor girls in the district on the same day.

Once Snehalaya’s investigative team collected the necessary information, it immediately contacted the local police station as well as the childcare officials in the district. The police, accompanied by Snehalaya team, rushed to the village where, upon verification, it was confirmed that the two girls were indeed minors. The marriage was immediately stopped and the parents of both the girls, unrelated, were questioned by the police who applied charges under the Child Marriage Prohibition Act 2006 and filed a case against the parents.

One of the girls, Sheetal, who is 16 years old, had just cleared her matriculation examination. Her parents are farmers. The other girl Anita, who is only 15, was studying in the 10th standard and her parents are landless labourers. The difference in their social and economic backgrounds however did not matter as both the families said the lockdown had robbed them of their livelihood and as the entire family was staring at starvation, they decided to marry off the girls in order to have one mouth lesser to feed in the household.

Incidentally, in the same district, which has a population of just over five million, this was the fourth such incident in May itself that has come to light. Social workers say that the actual number of child marriages that escape the attention of the authorities and the NGOs could be much higher and the girls in questioned cannot be rescued in time. The main and perhaps the sole reason behind this current spike in child marriages is that the lockdowns have crippled the economy in rural India, much more than it has hurt the urban economy. “The lockdowns have cracked the rural economy and people are thinking of giving up responsibilities by arranging marriages of their daughters before they attain the legally permissible age,” Girish Kulkarni founder of Snehalaya, tells Media India Group.

He goes on to say that the situation is not something unique to Ahmednagar or even Maharashtra. “The UNICEF has identified districts in India where the rate of child marriages is alarming. Ahmednagar and the adjoining eight districts in drought prone Marathawada region are included in this list. Lack of jobs, consistent drought due to low rainfall and use of water for thirsty crops like sugarcane that needs five times more water for per kilo of harvest than other crops, an agrarian economy and a feudal social structure are the reasons,” Kulkarni adds.

There is a huge permanent migration to urban areas and temporary or seasonal migration of workers to work on the fields like harvesting sugarcane. Many of these migrant workers belong to the disadvantaged sections of the society, have little or no education and live in abject poverty. “All of these factors come together to make these communities more prone to child marriages,” he adds.

Social workers warn that the situation is likely to worsen dramatically as soon as the lockdown is lifted or relaxed more to allow movement of people in the villages as well. The last two months have seen millions of workers leave cities and their workplaces to go back to their native villages. These people have no jobs and no money. They worry that they may not be able to feed their families any longer and believe that starvation is not too far away. Also, some others may start moving around, post-lockdown, to hunt for a job and would be worried about leaving young daughters alone at home without either of the two parents.

“Getting them married off, even if at a young age, acts as a guarantee of safety for them. After the lockdown began, the number of child marriages in Ahmednagar and Marathawada region has grown by 27 pc,” says Mahesh Suryavanshi, coordinator of Ahmednagar Childline who has a lot experience in dealing with such cases. He adds that typically the child marriages are arranged in local temples with the small family groups. “There is nothing fancy about these. There are no invitation cards, no lavish meals and definitely no intimation to the village council,” adds Suryavanshi.

Four million girls are at a risk of child marriage in the next two years because of the new coronavirus pandemic, a global charity said recently, as campaigners warned that the crisis could undo decades of work to end the practice.

“Lockdown has not only disrupted the lives of 487 million labourers but it has put them on starvation. Mainly contract and daily wage labourers and people who fall in the category above the marginalised line are also found victims of lockdown. For them, the best solution is to marry their girl child,” says Rani Patel, founder president of Aarohan, the Delhi based NGO that works with children from slum areas.

Deepening poverty caused by the loss of livelihoods is likely to drive many families to marry off their daughters early, World Vision said. “When you have any crisis like a conflict, disaster or pandemic, rates of child marriage go up,” the charity’s child marriage expert Erica Hall told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “If we don’t start thinking about how to prevent it now it will be too late. We can’t wait for the health crisis to pass first.”

Campaigners said the risks were exacerbated by the fact that schools were closed and organisations working to combat child marriage were finding it harder to operate during lockdowns. The pandemic is also making it more difficult for girls to access reproductive health services which could lead to a rise in teenage pregnancies and increased pressure to marry. Worldwide, an estimated 12 million girls are married every year before the age of 18, nearly one girl every three seconds.

A U.N. report last month predicted the pandemic could lead to an extra 13 million child marriages over the next decade. This is alarming for India as the country accounts for over 16 million cases each year where a girl is married off before she turns 18. In normal times, this is more due to old traditions and customs whereby the sooner a girl is married off, the better for the family. However, now, if parents are forced to marry their underage daughters just so they can escape starvation, there could be avalanche of such marriages.

Kulkarni says that the government needs to step in rapidly and with the assistance of NGOs, take some measures to ensure that it takes the responsibility of those girls that the parents can no longer take care of. “The government should house them in women’s hostels, provide vocational training to help these girls find jobs and be financially independent. Obviously, the government cannot do this alone and it should partner with NGOs to protect the girl child of India,” he adds.

Aarohan’s Patel agrees and says that the government has to create a strong chain to protect the children involving local panchayat and NGO’s, police and family members and neighbours. “Electronic Identity (E-Cards) should be issued to track the children. The children should be engaged in educational and vocational training and the parents should be given incentives on a monthly basis to send their wards to school regularly,” adds Patel.

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1 COMMENTS

  1. Like!! Great article post.Really thank you! Really Cool.

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