Last month, a 16-year-old girl phoned the Collector of Tiruvannamalai district, in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu. She filed a complaint against her parents and a 39-year-old man from her community whom she was being forced to marry.
Her parents, who were rendered jobless during the pandemic, were told by the man he would take care of all the wedding costs. He did not even demand dowry—a system in which the groom receives payment from the bride’s family to ensure her well-being.
“It was an attractive offer, and the parents agreed,” Chezhian Ramu, a social worker and child rights activist in Tiruvannamalai, told VICE News. The Collector - who heads the district administration - intervened; the girl is now under the care and protection of the state government.
This economically backward district has the second-highest cases of child marriage in Tamil Nadu, which saw 168 such instances in 2019. The last-available official data from the state is from 2017, when it reported 1636 child marriages.
A 2019 report by the United Nations International Children's Fund (UNICEF) states that one in three of the world’s child brides live in India. Of the country’s 223 million child brides, 102 million were married before turning 15.
This June, Tiruvannamalai saw what district authorities call an abnormal spike in child marriages: around 40. “This is the highest we have ever seen,” Christina Dorthy, the district’s social welfare officer, told VICE News. At no time during April 2017 and May 2020 did the monthly number of child marriages in Tiruvannamalai go above 27 per month; the lowest was eight cases. “COVID-19 has given a perfect breeding ground for this social evil to flourish,” said Dorthy.
Various state government officials and activists across Indian states are reporting this unnatural spike in child marriages. In the western state of Maharashtra, the Women and Child Development department reportedly intervened in as many as 80 cases of minor girls being forced into marriage during March-June 2020. Officials in the state told The Indian Express that as young as 13-year-old girls were married off to men who were, in some cases, double their age.
The most recent government-provided data on child marriage is by the National Family Health Survey (NFHS) in 2016 , which stated that 27 percent of Indian women marry before the legal age of 18, while 20 percent of men were married before the legal age of 21 years.
Laws put in place to curb this practice have been criticised for being toothless and “limited” in its effectiveness to completely stop the practice. A State of World Population 2020 report by the United Nations Population Fund found that despite a 50 percent decline in child marriage in South Asia over the years, the region still accounts for the highest number of cases globally.
Despite its prominence in India, authorities cite reasons unique to COVID-19 and the subsequent lockdowns for the spike. Increased poverty is one of them, as evidenced in the case of the aforementioned 16-year-old girl. “Migrants who were employed in small industries are now back in their hometowns without jobs,” said Ghasiram Panda, the national manager of ‘Ending Child Marriage’ programme by the NGO ActionAid India, supported by the UNICEF.
In the eastern state of West Bengal, increased child marriages were reported in June, where the families and migrants are doubly affected by the lockdown and tropical cyclone Amphan in May (which saw an estimated damage of around USD13 billion).
Shutting down of schools and community centres are already making children, especially girls, more vulnerable. In the South Indian state of Telangana, district officials reportedly intervened in over 200 cases of child marriage over the last few months.
“In fact, what we witness right now is only the tip of the iceberg,” said Ramu. The story of the 16-year-old girl is a rare example, he cautioned. “There might be 10 times more incidents that we may not be aware of because children’s mobility and communication are restricted. They will not be able to confide in their teachers or friends, which used to happen before.”
Families are also exploiting the lockdown restrictions to conduct low-cost ceremonies, without the need to bear the cost of wedding halls or large gatherings. “It’s easier for families to do this in absolute secrecy within their own homes,” said Dorthy. She recently intervened in a child marriage ceremony in Tiruvannamalai after she was tipped off by a villager who attended the wedding at the family’s home. “The family denied it happened, so did most attendees, but we found proof in pictures of the wedding,” she said.
Childline, a Government of India-run helpline, reportedly received 37 calls on child marriage in the South Indian state of Karnataka within two weeks starting March 25—when the lockdown came into effect. Fr Antony Sebastian, the chairperson of Karnataka State Commission for Protection of Child Rights, called this spike “abnormal” and “alarming for such a short period of time.”
At the moment, there is no coordinated national-level effort to track child marriages during the pandemic. Various NGOs and district government officials are gathering data independently, and those too, they say, may not represent the complete picture.
The ActionAid-UNICEF project has been tracking child marriage cases since March 23. They reported 183 cases in Odisha, 138 in West Bengal, 56 in Jharkhand, 25 in Bihar and 16 cases in Rajasthan, among others. Panda told VICE News that there is a dire need to build comparative data, which may help organisations and district officials understand the true scale and trend of the current crisis.
Many Child Marriage Prohibition Officers are occupied with COVID-19 management. “The pandemic has pushed the issue of child marriage on the back foot in the department’s list of work priorities,” said Varsha Rani Tirkey, a district coordinator with ActionAid Association in Chatra district, Jharkhand.
In districts like Chatra, where poor literacy rate and school dropouts are rampant, officials are facing more resistance from society than before. Tirkey told VICE News that during one of her recent interventions, villagers questioned officials about the safety of the girls if they weren’t married and demanded compensation for wedding costs.
Dorthy added that the risk of COVID-19 infection is high for officers like her. “Most of us are not safe; one of my staff admitted after testing positive. Many already have mild symptoms,” she said.
On a positive note, NGOs also noticed a sharp drop in customs like mass weddings of children in the North Indian state of Rajasthan. Trafficking by way of child marriage, too, is severely affected due to restrictions on travel and transport, said Panda.
Today, authorities worry that the abuse will not stop at child marriage. “Families marrying off minor girls think they will save costs by holding a wedding during the lockdown. What they don’t realise is that they will suffer in other ways: outrageous dowry demands, teen pregnancies and domestic violence usually follow after marriage,” said Dorthy.
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