India’s Covid-19 waves prompts spate of illegal child marriages

Families ‘exploited’ lockdowns to illegally marry off daughters aged between 11 and 14 years

 In the village of Amlitala in 2004, a villager prepares a mix of smashed seeds and purified water to cover the bride and groom’s bodies, a ritual performed on the day before the actual wedding. File Photograph: Alexis Duclos/Gamma-Rapho/ Getty Images

In the village of Amlitala in 2004, a villager prepares a mix of smashed seeds and purified water to cover the bride and groom’s bodies, a ritual performed on the day before the actual wedding. File Photograph: Alexis Duclos/Gamma-Rapho/ Getty Images

 

India’s two Covid-19 pandemic waves, which erupted in early 2020 and again a year later and led to nationwide lockdowns, also prompted a spate of illegal child marriages in several states.

Social and child rights activists said thousands of poverty-stricken families, panicked by the fatalities and economic devastation of the pandemic, had “exploited” the lockdowns to illegally marry off their daughters, aged between 11 and 14 years.

They said that for many parents it was a desperate bid to ensure their child’s survival, in case they themselves succumbed to the virus.

Volunteers from Childline, an NGO that operates a 24-hour countrywide telephone helpline for children in distress, said about 5,200 child marriages were reported across India in the first four months of the lockdown up to June 2020.

But they said the real numbers could be three or four times higher, as such activity went largely unreported in remote rural areas where it was most prevalent.

Child marriages

A similar or perhaps even larger number of child marriages reportedly took place during the second, more deadly virus wave that flared up in March 2021, statistics for which are being presently collated, as lockdown restrictions have only recently eased.

Banned by the Child Marriage Restraint Act of 1929, the child weddings occurred largely in village and tribal communities in the central Indian states of Madhya Pradesh, neighbouring Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, Bihar in the east and Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka in the south.

“I had no means of sustenance during the lockdown to look after my two teenage daughters, so marrying them off was my only option,” a woman who went by the name Champa Devi told a social worker, who also declined to use their real name, late last year.

Both feared being charged for abetting child marriages, which are punishable under Indian law with a two-year jail term and a heavy fine, or both. In India the marriageable age for girls is 18 years.

The social worker said Devi, from Madhya Pradesh’s Sehore district, 30km south of the state capital Bhopal, and others like her, realised there would be no officials, police or social activists during lockdown to prevent her from marrying off her underage daughters.

Estimated

According to the United Nations Children Fund (Unicef), a third of the world’s estimated 223 million child brides are from India, of which some 102 million – or every second victim – were married off before they were 15 years old.

A witness in Rajasthan’s desert region to one recent child wedding in Jodhpur district, 350km west of the state capital Jaipur, said the bridal couple fell asleep as their marriage was being solemnised.

The two children were woken and escorted by their parents around a fire to complete the rituals in keeping with ancient Hindu marriage rites.

Finances are understood to play an important role in promoting child marriages – marrying a young girl is considered “economical” since her wrists and ankles are small, and it therefore costs less to buy her silver bangles and anklets, a necessity for most brides, however poor.

The origin of child marriages is obscure, but social scientists and village elders believe they started around the 10th century with the first Muslim invasions of India.

Fearful that the conquering invaders would carry off their daughters, many rural families began marrying them off at an early age to ensure their safety, and the practice has continued.

India, however, has signed up to adopt Unicef’s Sustainable Developmental Goals of eliminating the practice of child marriage by 2030.