Bhopal: Sixteen-year-old Radhika Pawar was preparing for her secondary board examinations, scheduled to begin late April, when she heard the news of the exams being postponed, owing to the second Covid surge in the country. The exams were eventually cancelled and a state-wide lockdown was announced mid-April.
The Bhopal resident, however, didn’t care too much. Her family was preparing to get her married during the lockdown — a decision that had young Radhika’s full support. The day that she was supposed to have appeared for her pre-board Hindi exams, 29 April, was chosen as her wedding date.
Word of the impending underage marriage, however, reached the anganwadi workers of the area, and they rushed to Radhika’s home in Bhopal’s Chavni to stop the wedding, hours before the rituals were to begin.
Radhika, whose father is a driver and mother a daily wage labourer, said she had been happy to be married. “It made perfect sense to me,” said the teenager, with a practicality beyond her years.
“Because of the lockdown, we couldn’t have invited many people and therefore wouldn’t have needed to spend too much money. We would have saved the money that is ordinarily spent on paying for the tents, halwai (caterer), band baja. We would have been able to save a few lakhs. Because of the lockdown, we could have had a simple wedding for a few thousand rupees,” she explained, adding, “There’s no way we can afford a normal wedding in regular times.”
The second Covid surge and the accompanying lockdown has brought with it a spike in the number of cases of attempted child marriages across Madhya Pradesh.
According to figures shared by the Madhya Pradesh Women and Child Development ministry, a total of 710 child marriages were attempted between April 2020 and March 2021. But as soon as the second lockdown hit this year, the number of attempted child marriages shot up to 391 between April and May this year. This is more than half the figure reported in the past one year.
While ministry officials said the weddings were stopped “just in time”, families forwarded varying reasons for the attempted nuptials — from the lure of a “cheap” ceremony, to a fear of who will look after the child if the parents succumb to Covid, and therefore an attempt to find an alternative family.
The occurrence of Akshay Tritiya, a day considered to be auspicious by Hindus, on 14 May — in the middle of the lockdown — led to a further spike in the attempted marriages that day. It is considered lucky to be married on Akshay Tritiya.
An anganwadi worker in Bhopal, who did not wish to be named, told ThePrint that she had come to know of five attempted cases of child marriage only in that district that day.
According to reports published by both the UNICEF and Child Rights and You (CRY) in the past two-three years, Madhya Pradesh has been among the top six states in the country with the highest number of child marriages over the past decade.
Pragya Awasthi, Joint Director of MP’s women and child development ministry, also admitted that the number of attempted child marriages in the state have, in fact, gone up over the past few years — from 400 in 2019 to over 700 in 2020 — but attributed this to better awareness and reporting mechanisms.
“People are growing more aware with time, so the number of cases being reported has also going up. This is a good sign,” she said.
‘Should get her married before something happens to us’
Chanda Kevat, a labourer in Bhopal, decided to get her 17-year-old daughter Rachna married in May, after her father-in-law began suffering from serious respiratory distress. Covid cases were surging at the time — on 15 May, Bhopal reported 1,241 new cases. There had been a total of 838 deaths from Covid in the district by then. Chanda was worried her father-in-law too might have contracted the disease and could die.
“I know how much he wants to see Rachna married, so we thought before something happens to him, we should organise the wedding,” Chanda told ThePrint.
Recalling the conditions in the state at the time, she added: “It was a very bad time, deaths were taking place all around us and we were very scared. We needed a family to take care of our child in case something happened to us,” she said.
The lure of a “cheap” ceremony was also, of course, there. “We wouldn’t have had to worry about spending too much on the ceremony either. Because of the lockdown, it could have been a simple, cheaper affair,” agreed Chanda.
The underage girl too posed no threat to the plan. Later, after the wedding had been stopped, when ThePrint asked her what she thought of getting married before turning 18, all she said was that she was happy to do “whatever seemed right to her parents”.
According to the provisions of the ‘Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006’, a marriage between a girl who is less than 18 years and a boy who is less than 21, is illegal and all participants — including the families and the service providers at the wedding — are liable to be punished.
Anganwadi workers, who are often the ones to spread awareness against such social crimes, however, said that they had to stop many such weddings during the lockdown in the state, which had extended between April and May.
‘Alert to prevent such weddings’
“Because of the lockdown, people felt they could conveniently marry off their children at a lesser expense. We were, however, very alert to stop any such wedding,” said Meena Prajapati, an anganwadi worker in Bhopal.
Archana Sahay, director of the Bhopal branch of NGO Childline, said when child marriages are stopped, the participants and their families are made to sign a panchnama at a local police station — acknowledging the act and giving an assurance that they won’t go ahead with the marriage.
“Our task force which goes to stop these weddings include police officers. The panchnama ensures that the parties are adequately warned of the repercussions,” Sahay told ThePrint.
The MP government too said it was always alert to stop any such weddings.
Akhilesh Chaturvedi, the Child Development Program Officer (CDPO) in Bhopal said whenever a child marriage is stopped, officials informed the families that it was a non-bailable offence under law. “Once the families are made aware of the strict provisions against it, they usually cancel the wedding. If they still attempt to go ahead with the ceremony, we register an FIR against them,” he said.
The MP government had in 2013 launched the Lado Abhiyan to check the problem of child marriage in the state.
The increased reporting of the evil was a result of efforts like these, said Pragya Awasthi, the joint director of WCD. The government makes “comprehensive plans every year to have a targeted approach to stop child marriages,” she said. “Even during the lockdown, our team was on the ground to keep a watch against such activities.”
(Edited by Poulomi Banerjee)