Mumbai: While Covid-19 and the historic, protracted lockdown has affected lives globally, in particular, the lives of young girls in Maharashtra have been impacted for the worse.
The shutdown brought an economic crisis in its wake, resulting in unemployment for millions of people; and, in rural areas in Maharashtra, a shocking fallout has been the resurgence of the centuries-old practice of child marriage, which was first outlawed in India in 1929.
In more recent times, child marriage was declared illegal under the provisions of the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act (PCMA), 2006. Until June, only 76 cases had been identified, but in the following three months 138 such cases were reported.
As per the official records of the state's woman and child development (WCD) ministry, it has rescued around 214 girls, who were victims of child marriage, from January to September 2020. The numbers for this year are almost double the number for the same time last year, when around 120 child marriages were recorded. Moreover, FIRs have been registered in 28 other cases in which the incidents came to light after the weddings had been solemnised. However, activists believe this could also mean such instances may have gone unreported in these districts.
According to officials, one of the major reasons for this sudden spurt in such marriages is the fact that lakhs of migrants have returned to their native places and thus, more prospective grooms are now available. “Since the outbreak of the pandemic and the nationwide lockdown, we have managed to prevent more than 214 child marriages, while more than 28 FIRs were lodged across the state,” said WCD Commissioner Hrishikesh Bhaskar Yashoda.
The highest number of cases have been registered from rural Maharashtra, in the districts of Beed, Jalna, Aurangabad, Parbhani, Hingoli, Nanded, Latur, Buldana, Dhule, Jalgaon Solapur, Kolhapur and Sangli, among others.
Idzes Kundan, secretary, WCD, Maharashtra said the cases of child marriage have doubled in the state as compared to last year. “Child marriage is considered one of the reasons for early pregnancy and malnutrition in children. We have instructed child protection committees to be more vigilant about such incidents,” she said.
In June, the state government was only allowing 50 people to be in attendance at weddings, which made the ceremony extremely economical for poor farmers. Since then, the incidence of child marriage has increased, from 76 cases until June to 138 in the following three months.
“Though the farmers are poor, they spend most of their savings on marrying off their daughters, in keeping with social demands. Now, as it has become less expensive, farmers are taking due advantage of it,” said Sudhir Tupe from the Lok Kalyan Charitable Trust, an NGO in Satara district.
According to an official, in some cases, parents expressed apprehension that the temporary shutdown of schools had also made the girls vulnerable to sexual harassment within large families or neighbourhoods and hence they sought to get them married. “There is apprehension about when things will get back to normal. Many said that they did not know if they would have enough money later to perform the marriages. The worrying trend is the young age group of 13-15-year-olds being forced into marriage,” he said.
Now, it is becoming harder to detect cases because when asked about the whereabouts of minor girls, parents say they have gone to visit relatives. “When schools are functioning regularly, girls dropping out or failing to attend for days immediately draws attention,” said the official.
This month, the pan-India NGO, Save the Children, published a study which claimed that Covid-19 would globally put 2.5 million more girls at risk of early marriage by 2025.
According to the official, the surge in child marriage is due to a host of factors, including the lockdown, and the resultant closure of schools, the impact on the rural economy and lack of financial security and uncertainty over livelihood, which has pushed many into poverty.
“Due to the financial crisis being faced by many today, given a choice between educating the boy or the girl in the family, there is a likelihood of many girls being forced to drop out and thereafter, forced into marriage. There is a need to strengthen the child protection committees and the working of child marriage prohibition officers to increase community participation to prevent such incidents,” he said.