Bulandshahr: When the Covid pandemic shut down her school and forced her to stay home, a 12-year-old from Bulandshahr sensed a distinct shift in conversations around her household.
“In the beginning, there were no online classes. The more my family saw me around, the more they discussed my marriage prospects,” she told ThePrint at her home in Khalaur village, whispering to keep her parents from listening.
“Villagers feared that young girls could elope with their lovers. This talk led my brother to doubt my character and he started abusing me. My old parents (both in their 60s) could not stand this abuse so they found me a boy,” she said.
The wedding was all set to take place in November but some quick thinking by the girl got her out of the ordeal.
“After the roka ceremony in August, I managed to sneak out of the house and called my teacher for help. I did not want to become a child bride,” she said. “I have heard horrible stories from those who got married at an early age.”
What the 12-year-old managed to buck was an apparent trend that saw growing instances of attempted child marriage around India amid the Covid-19 lockdown and the following months.
According to data sourced via RTI from ‘Childline 1098’, a national helpline run by the Union Ministry of Women and Child Development, as many as 18,324 SOS calls about child marriage were made between April and October this year. In comparison, the corresponding period last year saw 15,238 calls about child marriage. In all of 2019-20, the helpline received around 25,000 calls in this regard.
Helpline insiders, other experts and the families involved offer different reasons for the spurt in attempted child marriages during the pandemic — school closures forcing children to stay home, Covid restrictions limiting the guest list and thus offering the prospect of lower expenses, and a general belief that police and other authorities would be too busy handling the pandemic to intervene.
Additionally, for some parents whose livelihood was upended by the pandemic, marriage was seen as the easiest way to “secure” their children’s future.
Bulandshahr, where ThePrint met the 12-year-old, is among the districts that account for the highest number of child marriage-related distress calls in Uttar Pradesh, according to officials of the local Child Welfare Committee (district-wise panels set up under the juvenile justice Act to oversee the “care, protection, treatment, development and rehabilitation of children in need of care & protection and to provide for their basic needs and protection of human rights”).
Activists in the district admit the numbers have risen, adding that they have been extra vigilant over the past few months to prevent child marriages, visiting the households of students who stop attending online classes or answering calls. The role of teachers, in fact, has proved crucial in foiling child marriages in Bulandshahr.
Ever since the pandemic took root at the start of the year, experts have issued ominous warnings about its long-term impact on some of the most vulnerable sections of society.
In April, the United Nations Population Fund cautioned countries that growing economic hardships on account of the pandemic, as well as the disruption caused in intervention programmes, could result in an estimated 13 million more child marriages over the next 10 years.
The legal age for marriage in India is 18 years for women and 21 for men. However, according to the United Nations (UN), nearly 15 lakh girls below the age of 18 get married in India every year, making it the country with the largest number of child marriages in the world.
The data from Childline reveals that distress calls related to child marriages have been rising in the past couple of years, from over 13,000 in 2016-17, to over 17,000 in 2017-18, and more than 22,000 in 2018-19.
The rising number of SOS calls to Childline — which seeks to protect children from crimes ranging from sexual abuse to child labour — about child marriage come even as the overall distress calls have fallen.
In 2016-17, Childline received 1,32,66,050 distress calls, followed by 1,15,59,750 in 2017-18, 90,12,164 in 2018-19, and 72,94,688 in 2019-20.
This year, the helpline received 45,28,870 calls between March and October.
Talking to ThePrint, an official from the helpline said, “We expected fewer calls this year as the country was in a strict lockdown for the initial months and there was no movement at all.”
In almost all the instances of SOS calls regarding child marriage, officials said, the ceremony was stopped, either by police, the district administration, or helpline staff.
FIRs are not registered at every instance. Those involved are only booked if they go ahead with the marriage after submitting written declarations to police that they won’t get their children married.
So, while the number of distress calls regarding child marriage has increased, the WCD ministry has cited NCRB data to claim there hasn’t been an increase in the actual number of child marriages during the lockdown.
In a written reply to Parliament this September, Union WCD Minister Smriti Irani said, “As per the information received from National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), there is no data to indicate a rise in the number of child marriages during the lockdown period.”
According to National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) figures available on its website, 326 cases of child marriage were registered in 2016 and 2017 each, followed by 395 in 2018, and 501 in 2019.
ThePrint approached the NCRB with an RTI query to obtain the child marriage figures for March to October, but the organisation said it only collects yearly data.
ThePrint also reached the WCD ministry spokesperson through phone and email for comments — seeking, among other things, a clarification on the NCRB information cited in Parliament — but a response was yet to be received at the time of publishing this report.
According to the Union government’s National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR), states and UTs have also denied any rise in child marriages amid the lockdown.
“We had specifically asked them if there is a rise or not. They have clearly told us that there is no rise in child marriages,” said NCPCR chair Priyanka Kanoongo.
A furious mother
At Veerpur, another village in Bulandshahr, the mother of a 16-year-old girl has been furious since the latter’s marriage was stopped by the district authorities in September.
“They stopped the marriage, but please tell me, what difference does it make if I marry her today or two years later? My husband passed away many years ago,” she said.
The 16-year-old interjected and tried to explain why her mother decided to marry her off. “My brothers are also married. The lockdown made us more vulnerable. My mother emotionally blackmailed me, so I agreed to the marriage initially, as it meant fewer people would attend the wedding (due to Covid restrictions), and a lower burden on my mother,” said the minor.
The marriage was set to take place in November, with a groom who didn’t demand dowry. While her mother saw it as an ideal match, the teen changed her mind and got in touch with a teacher who then alerted the district authorities.
The teacher she alerted was the same woman who helped the 12-year-old from Khalaur. Madhu Sharma teaches at Pardada-Pardadi Inter College, a school that offers free education to girls, and has been helping children get away from forced marriages through the pandemic.
Speaking to ThePrint, Sharma described the Khaura child as “a smart girl”. “After her call, I went to meet her family and asked them to call off the marriage. They thought that police and the administration are busy fighting Covid and they can easily go ahead with the plans. So, we had to take the help of child protection officers from the district to stop this marriage,” she said.
The school where Sharma teaches has been set up by the nonprofit Pardada Pardadi Educational Society (PPES), which has been working for the empowerment of girl children since 2000.
At schools run by the society, girl students take a pledge daily in the school assembly: “Hum zaroor shadi karenge lekin dasvi karne ke baad (We will surely get married but only after completing Class 10).”
During the lockdown, Sharma said, many girls either stopped taking their online classes or “stopped picking our phone calls”.
“We started visiting the houses of these girls to make sure they don’t drop out and get married,” she added.
“We realised that as the economic condition of the families worsened during the pandemic, the first thought that came to their mind was to marry off the daughters.”
PPES CEO Renuka Gupa said child marriage “has again become a harsh reality during the pandemic”, adding that their work had helped bring down the numbers in the years before.
“In the last 20 years, we have saved at least 250 girls from becoming child brides. In the past two years, the number has reduced to zero. This was because we offered scholarships to the girls, and economically empowered their families by giving the girls scholarships and their families employment under the e-village initiative,” she added.
“But… this social evil has again become a harsh reality during the pandemic. We have intervened in five child marriages during this period,” she said. “This is an indication that the economic crisis and rising social insecurities are helping revive this practice.”
According to the Bulandshahr Child Welfare Committee, they received 24 distress calls related to child marriages from April to December — compared to two in 2019, seven in 2018 and four in 2017.
“These figures clearly tell us that there is a rise. We received most complaints during July-August and November-December,” said Dr Bhupender Singh, a member of the committee.
“During July-August, it was the migrants who tried to get their daughters married off. As they left everything behind in the cities, they had nothing to do in the villages,” he said.
“We had a case this time where a 16-year-old boy was being married to a 12-year-old girl. The girl’s family was offered money by the groom’s family. This case tells us about the crisis related to child marriages.”
In November-December, he added, “the crisis hit the farming community”.
“We also noticed that single mothers, who face deeper social insecurity, tried to marry off their underage girls. The fear of ‘what will happen in the future if I die’ has become a major concern,” he said.
Singh said more and more girls “are dropping out of schools”. “This can also lead to a spike in child marriages,” he said.