It has been almost a year since the COVID-19 hit India and changed its outlook. The pandemic had many other implications in its wake, but the rise in child marriage cases and its mounting threats on adolescent girls have been nothing but horrifying. In the last year, CRY (an Indian NGO for child’s rights) has seen instances of child marriages almost doubling in the operational areas of Shramika Vikasa Kendram (SVK) comprising 52 villages in the Wanaparthy and Nagarkurnool districts of Telangana.
The year 2020 saw 34 child marriages as compared to 18 such instances reported in 2019, while 6 other cases of child marriage were stopped in time in 2020 in comparison to 17 such instances the previous year (2019-20) by SVK, a local NGO supported by CRY (Child Rights and You).
According to SVK personnel, the number of averted cases could have been higher, if their reach was not been limited during the lockdown months.
“It was very difficult for our partner organisations to reach out to the families in the remote villages during the initial phase of the pandemic when the lockdown was in its stringent form. Additionally, COVID-19 affected many families following massive job losses and reduced income, which heightened the plight of girls being forced into child marriages. We, through our VCPC (Village Child Protection Committee) network and increased vigilance, beefed up our surveillance to avert as many child marriages as possible,” said John Roberts, Programme Head of CRY Development Support (DS) team (South).
“Partner teams visited all high-risk adolescent girls’ houses and interacted with their family members counselling them on Covid-19 and the negative impact of child marriage. Community organisers engaged adolescent girls in the Child Rights activities, which also made them feel safe and protected”, said Laxman Rao, Head of SVK.
As per the media reports, the Telangana State Commission for Protection of Child Rights (TSCPCR) reported 204 cases in the first three months after the pandemic broke out in 2020, increasing the rate of child marriage due to distress situations.
According to the latest statistics, 83 percent of the married children are within the age-group of 15-19, making adolescent girls the most vulnerable of the lot. According to a study (Educating the Girl Child 2019) conducted by CRY, 60.6% of girls dropped out of school as their parents could not afford the expenses of their education. For school-going girls, no resistance from family and community was a strong motivating factor to continue education. The majority of the girls reported that they did not face any resistance from family and community to continue their education (97% and 98% respectively).
What is more worrying is that the pandemic can reverse the gains made in addressing child marriage over the past years. Though there is a scarcity of available data from all states, but media reports say the state governments have intervened to stop over 5,584 child marriages across the country during the lockdown period.
As per the data collected from the CRY intervention areas in 19 Indian states, the NGO averted 2031 cases of child marriage in 2018-19 and 2019-20.
“Experience gathered from the ground suggests that education can play a crucial role in addressing the issue of under-age marriage. When a girl is dropped out of school, she becomes more vulnerable to child marriage. Data shows that lack of opportunities for schooling tend to push girls out of the education system, especially when it comes to those from marginalized sections, increasing their risk of marriage and early pregnancy,” says John Roberts.
He added that while preventive measures and stringent actions are extremely important, the civil society should come forward and support the government to address the issue.