Child marriages surge during and after the lockdown, official figure tip of the iceberg

Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006 has not deterred child marriages. Some child brides managed to stop the weddings but others cited their own safety as reason for giving their consent

Child marriages surge during and after the lockdown, official figure tip of the iceberg

Biswajeet Banerjee

ChildLine India claims to have compiled reports of 5214 child marriages reported between March to June across India. A much higher number, administrators concede, would have gone unreported.

“From our experiences and data reported these are just the tip of the iceberg,” says Priyanka Sreenath, Deputy Director of MAMTA, an NGO that works with the girl child. The poor were hit the hardest by the lockdown, points out Surojit Chatterjee who works with ‘Save the Children’. Getting minor daughters married was one way of reducing household expenses.

It was not just poverty though. In Shivpuri, Madhya Pradesh, a school dropout Neetu (name changed) told the police that she agreed to get married for reasons of safety. The fatherless girl looked after household work as her mother and brother went out to work as daily wage earners. She did not feel safe at home alone and since several cases of molestation were reported in the neighbourhood, she agreed to the proposal. The wedding however was stopped after police were tipped off.

In Bahraich (Uttar Pradesh), Ramesh Jatav’s 17-year old daughter called Women’s Helpline to report that she was being forced to marry. Jatav pleaded that he had 12 children, six of whom were girls. And girls among his people were married off before the age of 17. In Chitrakoot in Uttar Pradesh, a daily wage labourer, who also happened to be an alcoholic, took Rs 50,000 for the marriage of his 13-year old daughter from the boy’s family. He had lost his livelihood and this seemed to be the easiest way to make some money.

In Chandauli several families got together to organize a mass wedding of minor girls to save cost. But the plan was leaked and the function was scuttled. “I believed that during the lockdown and in the middle of this pandemic, when police is on high alert and strict guidelines are in place, weddings would not take place,” exclaims Dr Sangeeta Sharma, Member, Child Welfare Committee in Lucknow. But a high number of child marriages had taken place secretly, she said, and escaped scrutiny.

In Madhya Pradesh the recorded number of child marriages between November 2019 and March 2020 was 46 but it jumped to 117 in just three months of the lockdown from April to June 2020. Similarly, in Chhattisgarh only 18 cases were reported in five months prior to the spread of Covid but during the first three months of lockdown the number shot up to 58.

(Names of girls have been changed to conceal their identity)

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