COVID-19, poverty may have spurred child marriages in India: Activists

Numbers show one in every four in India is a child marriage, but ground situation may be even worse

By Himanshu Nitnaware
Published: Monday 20 February 2023
People’s economic situation deteriorated and many low-income families chose to marry off their children with limited guests, say activists. Photo: iStock__

The recent drive against against child marriages in Assam has brought the practice back into the spotlight. Child marriages in the country have gone down on paper, dropping from 26.8 per cent in 2015-16 to 23.3 per cent in 2019-21. However, activists working on ground suggest that the COVID-19 pandemic combined with poverty may have, in fact, worsened it. 

Assam chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma in February 2023 launched a crackdown on child marriages in the state, arresting over 3,000 people in 4,000 cases, quoting data from National Family Health Survey (NFHS)-5.

In the state, 31.8 per cent of women between 20-24 years were married before reaching adulthood, the data showed, higher than the 30.8 per cent recorded in 2015-16. However, the percentages are high for West Bengal, Bihar, Jharkhand, Rajasthan and Tripura, too.  

Read more: Why Assam’s drive will weaken the movement against child marriage

The highest figures were reported in West Bengal, where 41.6 per cent of women were married before they reached adulthood, the NFHS-5 showed. This is the same figure reported in NFHS-4 for 2015-16.

More than 40 per cent of marriages in Bihar happened when the women were under 18 years of age, while Jharkhand and Rajasthan indicate 32.3 per cent and 25.4 per cent, respectively. 

If the national average of 23.3 per cent is to be believed, at least one in every four in India is a child marriage. The problem is more acute in rural areas, where the average stands at 27 per cent. 

Down To Earth visited several districts of Rajasthan and found that the problem was severe in parts of Jaisalmer, Barmer, Tonk and Bhilawara, which are also plagued with poverty and tradition. However, the COVID-19 pandemic may have aggravated the situation. 

Sixteen-year-old Aarti (name changed) from Sansiyon ka Tala, a settlement about 13 kilometres from Barmer town in Rajasthan, is a mother of an eight-month-old child. She was married off at 14, along with her elder sister Pooja for economic reasons. 

Her father, who polishes shoes, had two daughters but could not afford two marriages, Aarti told DTE. So when he got proposals for both daughters in one go, he took it. 

“My mother fell sick and died 12 years ago. There was no one else to take care of us. By marrying off two daughters together, my father now has to feed just one stomach, my 12-year-old brother,” she said. 

Even though she was born and brought up in poverty, Aarti’s hopes to escape it are now completely crushed after being married off to an unemployed man — her life has now worsened.

“Somedays, my husband drives a tempo; other times, he polishes shoes. He earns around Rs 200-300 per day, which barely feeds us,” she said. She works as a ragpicker in the morning to support her family

Most of the men in the settlement are addicts and about 70 per cent have lost their lives or become disabled due to alcohol abuse, said Anita Soni, who works extensively for the welfare of women from the deprived section of society. Spurious liquor further jeopardises their lives. 

“Aarti’s future may be even grimmer, as her husband is addicted to zarda (tobacco), putting her and their child’s life at risk,” said Soni, who has worked in the settlement for 10 years. 

Read more: National Girl Child Day: Without HER, there is no tomorrow

Child marriage figures in Rajasthan dropped from 35.4 per cent in 2015-16 to 25.4 per cent in 2019-21, showed NHFS-5. 

A few child marriages were prevented by the officials after receiving tips said Shaheen Habib, member of Child Welfare Committee (CWC), Tonk. However, that is just a fraction of the total cases happening in the region, she added.  

“The cases of child marriage are much higher in reality than what official numbers speak. I ascertain this fact given the information and ground reporting we receive daily talking to locals,” she said.

The cases in Rajasthan and other parts of the country may have never actually declined, according to Kriti Bharti, rehab psychologist and child and women rights advocate. Bharti is also the managing director of non-profit Saarthi Trust, which works against the exploitation of children.

“The numbers may have actually risen post-COVID-19 pandemic. I have no official or documented data to prove it, but I am speaking from direct field observations and experiences. The data does not exist as the majority of the cases of child marriages go unreported,” she told DTE.

Vulnerabilities and financial burdens may be the primary reasons that may have increased child marriages during the COVID-19 pandemic. “Many low-income families feared death and safety and security of their daughters. So many adolescents were married off,” said Bharti. 

The economic crisis brought by the pandemic aggravated the misery of low-income families and forced parents to choose the alternative as it would entail one less mouth to feed, she added.

Poverty, accompanied by cultural and traditional practices, is the reason why the practice still survives, Bharti said. Rampant gender-based violent crimes also spur parents who believe marrying off young girls will keep them safer. 

“Parents also fear for the safety of the girl child. People from Bihar and Jharkhand fear their daughters may get raped or become the victim of some crime and marry them off as soon as they reach puberty. These families want to prevent the shame that such instances bring to the family,” she added. 

In Maharastra, parents often fear their daughters may elope with a lover from outside the community if they are not married off. “Poverty is not the reason in these areas,” Bharti said.

Child marriages definitely went up during the COVID-19 pandemic, said Zahir Alam, zonal coordinator at non-profit ActionAid based in Tonk.

Read more: Poor understanding of maternal, infant mortality rates & misuse of law behind Assam child marriage crackdown

“There may be no official documentation, but locals inform us that many children were married off discreetly. People’s economic situation deteriorated and many low-income families chose to marry off their children with limited guests, thereby entailing fewer expenses,” he said.

Another reason could be the less monitoring by officials as the government machinery was busy handling the pandemic, said Alam. 

States that did not show an increase in cases of child marriages in the survey might be under-reporting, said Bharti. “In the last 15 years, I have found that more girls have become aware that the practice is wrong and many choose to report it,” she said. 

Many teenagers find the courage to call, asking for help to stop their marriages or even to nullify them, she added. 

Saarthi Trust has been able to annul 48 child marriages and 12 more are under process, said Bharti. “We have stopped 1,700 child marriages and rehabilitated 15,500 women and children who were victims of child marriage across India,” she adds. 

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