Indore (MP), Patna (Bihar) & Chitrakoot (UP): When Pawan Singh, a 48-year-old mason in Indore, Madhya Pradesh, returned home to his village in Shravasti district in April 2020, his eldest daughter, Akanksha, aged about 14, dropped out of school. “Ghar ke kamon me mummy ki madad karne ke liye koi nahi tha (There was no one to help mummy with the chores),” she explained.
Over a year later, Pawan Singh is still at home, a daily wage labourer when he can find work and watching his savings dwindle. As the second wave of the pandemic hit, his wife Kusum Lata reconciled herself to the fact that it was time to get Akanksha, the eldest of four, married. “We are searching for a suitable groom and family for her. The right ones take time, especially when we have to get her married with limited funds,” she said.
Article 14 met girls in three districts of Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Bihar who were either already married or under pressure to get married as a result of the pandemic. Their stories echo the findings of health and social workers and nonprofits.
Covid-19 has disproportionately affected the lives of girls, especially in rural India. With lockdowns necessitated by a second wave of the pandemic and rising unemployment, many, such as Akanksha, are being asked to step up with housework. For many girls, online classes are simply inaccessible due to an existing digital gender gap.
Pandemic-related travel restrictions and physical distancing also make it difficult for many girls to access healthcare, social services and community support—all of which protect them from child marriage.
As schools remain closed, girls are more likely to drop out and never return. Job loss and increased economic insecurity may also force families returning to villages from cities where they worked to get their daughters married in order to ease the financial burden.
The government does not accept that child marriages have risen.
In September 2020, Rajya Sabha MP Amar Patnaik asked in Parliament if the government had recognised the fact that child marriages were rising during the lockdown. In response, Smriti Irani, minister of women and child development, had said: “As per the information received from National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), there is no data to indicate rising number of child marriage cases during the lockdown period.”
Even before the pandemic, one in every three child brides lived in India.
With 223 million child brides, 102 million of them married before turning 15, India is home to the largest number of child brides in the world, according to a February 2019 report by UNICEF, Ending Child Marriage: A Profile of Progress in India.
More than half of these child brides live in five states: Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal, Maharashtra, and Madhya Pradesh. Uttar Pradesh alone accounts for 35 million child brides, the most of any state.
Three in four of all married children live in rural India.
A Surge In Child Marriage
When people began heading back to their villages following the lockdown in March last year, “they started prioritising their daughters’ marriage due to financial crisis, closed schools, and other reasons. We might witness an upward surge in cases pertaining to child marriage post this pandemic,” said Krati Prakash, the Uttar Pradesh head of Breakthrough, a non-profit active in gender issues.
In fact, the pandemic, added Kanika Saraff, head of child safety systems of Bihar’s Aangan Trust, a non-profit working for vulnerable children, is threatening to undo years of efforts in ending early and forced marriage. In just four months, between November 2020 and February 2020, the NGO intervened to stop 200 child marriages in Patna. “If this is the scenario of a state capital, you can imagine the numbers in villages of other districts,” said Saraff. “The lockdown stopped everything but child marriage.”
In its Global Girlhood Report 2020, The Lancet warned of 2020 being a year of “irreversible setbacks and lost progress” for girls, predicting that 0.5 million more girls are at risk of being forced into child marriage this year alone and one million more are expected to become pregnant. This increase will bring the total number of child marriages around the world to around 12.5 million in 2020 from 10 million in 2019 (Sine it says, 2.5 million more girls are at risk)
Between March and June 2020, Childline India, an organisation helping children in distress, intervened in 5,584 child marriages. When the lockdown eased in June and July, child marriages spiked, marking a 17% increase over the previous year.
Child marriage, outlawed in India since 1929, violates child rights and risks the lives of girls by making them vulnerable to violence and exploitation.
“I spoke to a 15-year-old bride, Ankita and discovered it was actually her second marriage as her husband in the first marriage was jailed for being involved in manufacture of illegal alcohol,” said Shweta Mishra, Breakthrough’s Lucknow coordinator for community development. The 15-year-old’s own marriage, three years before the pandemic, is typical of the exploitation that brides are subjected to when they are married off as children.
Ankita Kumari, whose family could barely afford two meals a day, was just 12 when she was first married to a 26-year-old man. Later, the family found out that the husband was involved in illegal alcohol manufacture and would abuse and hit Ankita often. After his arrest for selling illegal alcohol, Ankita returned to her natal family and six months later married a 27-year-old shopkeeper in her own village.
The Link Between Financial Distress And Child Marriage
According to the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), a girl’s marriage depends upon certain specific backgrounds. Girls coming from rural poor households are more at risk. And a large proportion of child brides are found in households with low or no education.
With schools shut during the pandemic, parents, particularly those in financial distress, see few options other than to get their children married. For parents of daughters, this would mean one less mouth to feed and for parents of sons, there would be an additional pair of hands to help with housework.
Like Kusum Lata, Anjali Nishad, 39, from Majhgawan block of Satna district, Madhya Pradesh was looking to get her 16-year-old daughter married. She was on the verge of finalising a match when a local NGO—she does not know the name—intervened and convinced both families to call off the marriage.
“A few ladies turned up from an organisation and told us that if we get bitti (local term for daughter) married at this point, a police case would be filed against us. We will now do it only after two or three years. Since schools are closed, bitti stays home all the time and sometimes accompanies me in collecting mahua and tendu leaves,” said Anjali.
Anjali’s husband is a daily wage labourer who studied only till the fifth standard and has not been getting any work. Anjali herself has studied till first standard, she thinks. “I never went to school after class one and don’t even remember when I got married. That’s why I thought of marrying my daughter off at an early age,” she said.
Every mother who was planning to get their daughter married before 18 or had already done so happened to be married even before they had turned 15. In a couple of cases, the fathers too, were married before 21.
Mothers of daughters who marry young are often victims of child marriage themselves, said Pushpa Singh from Vanangana, a non-profit organisation which works on women issues. “We intervened in a couple of marriages (in Bundelkhand region) which were being planned last year and one common excuse the mothers give apart from being financially challenged is that they too, were married off as teens,” she told Article 14.
Closures Of Schools, Online Education And Drop-Outs
Based on our interviews, we found that girls who had managed to pursue their studies against their parents’ will are now sitting at home. Online education system is not an option for most in rural areas. Even if a family has a smartphone, it is monopolised by heads of families and men, not daughters.
Nearly 10 million secondary school girls in India could drop out of school due to the pandemic, putting them at risk of early marriage, early pregnancy, poverty, trafficking, and violence, finds a policy brief by Right to Education Forum published on 22 January 2021. UNICEF’s report also suggests that school closures, economic stress, service disruptions, pregnancy, and parental deaths due to the pandemic are putting the most vulnerable girls at increased risk of child marriage.
“It is now the second year in a row that the schools have remained closed. This could affect girls from rural backgrounds, especially those who are above seventh standard,” said Elesh Jain, a trustee at Sadguru Seva Sangh Trust, a non profit organisation working for education and healthcare of people in Bundelkhand.
Early Pregnancy And Health Risks
Rashmi Kumari, 17, of Bodhgaya block in Bihar’s Gaya district got married in July 2020. However, she continues to live with her parents and has not been sent to her in-laws even though she is already pregnant with her first child.
“My husband who works in a general store visits me often and I will go to my in-laws in June,” she said. At 27, her husband is 10 years older than her.
Rashmi shied away when she was asked about family planning and ASHA (accredited social health activist) workers. Her mother, Mahakali Devi, interrupted and said: “ASHA workers have seldom visited the village since the lockdown was enforced. They only come for the deliveries. They get paid for it.”
Early marriage leads more often than not to early pregnancy. “Lack of education and awareness of family planning along with family pressure, results in pregnancy,” said Elesh Jain. This in turn leads to a host of other issues. “Young girls are not physically ready to carry a baby. There are risks, including premature delivery that puts the health of both mother and child at risk.”
Added Vanangana’s Pushpa Singh: “In the past one year, we have come across many cases of early pregnancy. Female children as young as 13 and 14 were pregnant. However, we try to convince the families for abortion telling them that going ahead with the child would affect the health of the mother and child. Most of the time, it works, but not always. A female child who was just 13 and pregnant, died during her pregnancy, in Chitrakoot district.”
Anaemia in India is a severe public health problem especially among women, adolescent girls (10-19 years) and young children. Girls who marry early have a higher likelihood of suffering from food insecurity, malnutrition and consequent micronutrient deficiencies such as anaemia.
Poverty and resultant food insecurity can lead to early marriages of girls to ease financial burdens on households. Girls who marry early often have limited agency in making significant decisions about their own health and nutrition, perpetuating malnutrition.
Data from the 2019-20 National Family Health Survey, the latest available, also indicate that 11% of females between the age group 15-19 years were already mothers or pregnant at the time of the survey.
(Kumar Divyanshu is an independent journalist from Uttar Pradesh.)