Child marriages surged after COVID-19 first wave; streamlined state efforts helped arrest the trend, claim officials
As many as 3,970 villages in Odisha were declared child marriage-free between January and the first week of July 2021. The development has coincided with second wave of the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic; the state had registered a surge in child marriages during the first wave.
Ganjam district, according to officials, had the highest number of such villages at 1,172. Nayagarh had 753; Rayagada 559; Deogarh 370; Mayurbhanj 227; and Nabarangpur 172.
The pandemic-related economic slump pushed 119-124 million more people into extreme poverty in 2020. The crisis exacerbated inequalities as well: It is estimated that up to 10 million more girls would be at the risk of child marriage in the next decade.
Efforts on the ground
Measures taken by the state government in response to a spike in child marriages after the first wave of COVID-19 and subsequent lockdown in March 2020 helped achieve this feat, claimed officials and social activists.
The district child marriage verification teams covered the villages on the orders of the state women and child development (W&CD) department and submitted their reports after verifying documents submitted by child development project officers (CDPO). Meeting were held with the villagers concerned as well.
The verification teams comprised district social welfare officer, district child protection officer and members of voluntary organisations.
Each district formed its task force headed by the collector and devised own criteria to identify such villages. The parameters, however, remained more or less the same for all districts.
The whole process was largely led by the community, Aravind Agrawal, director, integrated child development services, department of W&CD, who is also the state’s chief child-marriage prohibition officer, told Down To Earth: “We went for a bottom-up approach where villagers took decisions on their end”.
Jolted by pandemic
India had more than 15 lakh child brides in the world, according to a UNICEF 2017 report. Several reports suggested that only four states — including Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and West Bengal — contributed to around half such marriages.
Odisha has, however, been far behind the top four states in this regard. But data showed that the percentage of child marriages in eight of its 30 districts almost matched those of the top states.
West Bengal and Bihar had child marriage rates of 40.7 per cent and 39.1 per cent, according to the fourth round of National Family Health Survey (NFHS-4) conducted in 2015-16.
In the same survey, Malkangiri district of Odisha was found to have a child marriage percentage of 39.9. The district was closely followed by Nabarangpur (37.9 per cent); Mayurbhanj (35 per cent), Koraput (34.7 per cent); Rayagada (34.4 per cent); Nayagarh (31.3 per cent); Ganjam (29.8 per cent) and Keonjhar (28.1 per cent).
These eight districts, where the majority or a sizable population belong to the Scheduled Tribes and Scheduled Castes, have been at the centre of Odisha’s child marriage prevention drive. The state government in 2017 brought another seven districts — including Subarnapur, Boudh, Kandhamal, Gajapati, Dhenkanal and Balasore — under the drive because the child marriage rate in these districts were found to be higher than the national average.
Sustained awareness campaign against child marriage by the administration, in collaboration with Childline, UNICEF, Action Aid and other voluntary groups, helped bring down child marriages considerably in the 15 districts.
A few gram panchayats also started declaring villages under them free of child marriages.
The outbreak of COVID-19 and subsequent month-long country-wide lockdown in March 2020 brought a halt to the drive as the frontline service providers — Anganwadi and Accredited Social Health Activist (ASHA) worker and panchayati raj representatives — got engaged in COVID-19 works.
Sudden spikes in child marriages — attributed mainly to the adverse impact of the pandemic, multiple lockdowns on the livelihood of poor people and also loneliness of the adolescents following the closure of schools — became a cause of concern.
“We failed to notice child marriages in the first five months of the pandemic. Our priority had changed from preventing child marriage to saving people from COVID-19,” an anganwadi worker in Ganjam said.
Government figures told a similar story. Official data said 706 child marriages, mostly in the 15 districts under anti-child marriage drive, were reported between January 1 and August 2020. As many as 365 marriages out of these took place between January 1 and March 24.
“It was a matter of grave concern. A child bride loses her rights and her education. She is also vulnerable to sexual abuse,” said BN Durga, a social activist.
The W&CD department in September 2020 asked the district collectors concerned to form task forces at the district level and block committees comprising officials, people’s representatives, civil society members and local prominent personalities.
Training and digital meetings were organised to sensitise people on the subject.
The task force and block committee members held regular meetings to create awareness about the ill-effects of child marriages on the mental and physical health of the children. “The best part of the drive was that after some time, the community owned it up and took the initiative forward,” he said.
VLCMPCs were formed with women self-help groups and Panchayati Raj Institution members to monitor anti-child marriage activities. Weekly meetings were organised at Anganwadi centres for adolescent girls as an alternative to closed school and isolation.
They were encouraged to share their experiences on issues concerning education, vocation, foods and nutrition and child health.
W&CD director Agrawal said a process was in the fold to create a state-level guideline to streamline child marriage prohibition drive. He said the state has planned to go on campaign mode to ensure complete child marriage free environment across the state.
We are a voice to you; you have been a support to us. Together we build journalism that is independent, credible and fearless. You can further help us by making a donation. This will mean a lot for our ability to bring you news, perspectives and analysis from the ground so that we can make change together.
Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.