CHILDLINE India, a helpline for distressed children, has received over 5,500 calls related to child marriage since lockdown. Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana are the top 5 States to have reported child marriages during these first 3 months. Karnataka alone accounts for nearly 29 per cent of interventions for child marriage. Over 500 cases of child marriages were reported in West Bengal between mid-March and May.
People are dealing with unbearable situations and adjusting to life due to covid-19 pandemic across the world. They are using both positive and negative coping mechanisms to overcome the issues related to COVID 19. One of the negative coping mechanisms which the most helpless families are very likely to choose is child marriage. Asia is home to more than half of the world’s 1.1 million girls and those currently not in school are at higher risk of exploitation. In April 2020, a UN report had warned that Covid 19 pandemic could lead to an extra 13 million child marriages before 2030.
The impact has already started in India after facing a spike in child marriages during the lockdown. The surge is due to the closure of schools, lack of financial security, increased poverty, poor surveillance from the concerned authorities, fewer marriage expenses, and families able to keep the secrecy of marriage due to lockdown.
Tiruvannamalai, a district in Tamil Nadu saw an abnormal spike in child marriage, around 40, in the month of June. In Telangana 204 child marriages have taken place in between March 24 & May 31. In Maharashtra, the state government and NGOs have intervened to stop as many as 80 instances of child marriages. Since there has been no coordinated national-level effort to track child marriages during the pandemic, the figures may not represent the complete picture and it might vary accordingly. The Action Aid-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.
In fact, Covid19 has given a perfect breeding ground for child marriage to flourish in India during the lockdown. Before the pandemic, various reports show that each year in India, at least 1.5 million girls under 18 get married, which makes it home to the largest number of child brides in the world. Nearly 16% of adolescent girls aged 15-19 are currently married. A report by UNICEF in 2019 had stated that one in three of the world’s child brides’ lives in India and the states of Bihar, West Bengal and Rajasthan have a 40% prevalence of child marriages.
Child marriage existed for centuries, is a complex global issue which is an appalling violation of human rights like education, health and safety. Reports show that globally 12 million girls each year get married before the age of 18-roughly 33,000 every day, or once every two seconds. It mainly happens due to poverty, lack of literacy, social pressures within a community and considering girl child an economic burden.
The root cause of which are many and varied. But extreme poverty seems to be a major cause of child marriage. The girls who marry at a very early age experience intimate partner sexual violence and are highly vulnerable to sexually transmitted infections including HIV. Moreover, early pregnancy, childbearing and motherhood have negative impacts on their physical and psychological well-being. In addition, more chances of dying due to complications during pregnancy and childbirth.
Ending child marriage will not happen overnight. If it ends, it will lower population growth and increase the economic status of a country. Legislation alone cannot do anything to stop child marriage. Need is to change the attitude of people. This can be done by raise awareness among families and communities about the harmful consequences of child marriage and empower girls with information about their rights which helps them to make a decision to marry later.
Also, educate the parents about the benefits of keeping their daughters in school. There is no doubt that education helps the girls to find a job and help to break the cycle of poverty which in turn can provide better health care and education for the next generation. In addition, the school curriculum should include comprehensive sexuality education that stresses human rights & gender equality which is the need of the hour in the Indian education system. Furthermore, during this pandemic, support poor families with livelihood/economic opportunities which helps the parents less likely to perceive their daughters as economic burdens.