The lockdown has interrupted protective measures that need to be restarted immediately
The novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19), declared a global pandemic on March 11, 2020, has impacted everyone. Healthcare apart, it has a shattering effect on the economy as well as socio-economic issues.
Experience says any disaster makes the poor and excluded communities more vulnerable; women and children are the worst affected. Hence issues like child, early and forced marriages are raising their curve.
Kadambini, a 17-year-old girl, was studying in class 12. Her father is severely ill and bed-ridden. The only bread earner of the family, he is now counting his last breaths. Lockdown had brought misery to the family, which doesn’t have the capacity to spend on her wedding.
This became more profound as all livelihood options were seized due to lockdown. However, they also took it as a scope to cope with the situation. Lockdown norms bar large gatherings for social functions — an opportunity to cap expenses. Kadambini’s relative thought of that and arranged for her wedding with a boy from the her village.
Emergencies like COVID-19 and the lockdown reduces earnings, take away livelihoods, reduces mobility, shuts down schools and increases the risk of violence on women and children. School shutdowns leave girls confined to their houses; they can’t ventilate their suffering.
Such situations increase the possibility of abuse and neglect and influences child marriages on a bigger scale than normal times.
School closures has another adverse impact: Manisha, a 14-year-old Class 9 student, remained confined to and without much engagement. During the lockdown, Muna — a 25-year-old trucker returned to the village. The two developed a relationship and decided to elope.
Such elopement and / or premarital pregnancy are considered as shame for the family. To protect family honour, parents often force minor girls to marry much older men.
During the COVID-19 crisis the attention of frontline workers, the police and other functionaries have shifted to extending humanitarian response to those affected. It has created a vacuum in monitoring mechanisms related to children; the absence threatens to revive child marriages.
A shift in priority will halt prohibition efforts and take us to a situation we had a decade ago.
There are states with strategies to end child marriages. In the changing context, things have to be relooked at and re-strategized. More focus is need on the psychosocial health of youth and adolescents without the experience to handle the stress emerging from such crises.
Accesses to education, sexual and reproductive health (SRH) services have been disrupted. They need to be immediately restored. Youth and adolescents, especially girls, should be considered primary stakeholders; their participation should be ensured at all levels of intervention — need assessment, designing intervention and monitoring.
It is essential to ensure a space at different levels, free from discrimination, abuse, violence, neglect or exploitation. This will create a space for sharing fearlessly, which will strengthen the prohibition of early and forced marriage.
Child-protection committees at different levels need to be activated. The district magistrate is the nodal officer empowered to undertake special drives, depending upon the circumstances.
The Involvement of civil society organisations, including helplines for children, needs to be drafted accordingly. There is an increasing need of building convergence among village-level child protection committees, child marriage prohibition officers, district child protection units and child welfare committees.
These collaboration and convergence will ensure the best interest of the child.
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