Child Marriage & Teenage Pregnancy: the Worrisome COVID-19 Connect

using dolls to depict Child Marriage

Playing with dolls is something most of us have done growing up. Child marriage was nowhere in our minds. We reveled in our games: to set up our own world of imagination and to have our dolls play the characters we want to. We name the dolls, we make them have doll marriages, have them set up their homes, make doll wives cook food in their doll kitchens, have them sweep and clean the dollhouses, send their husband dolls away for work and even add doll babies for wife-husband doll parents!

When we hit our midteens, we would have moved on from dolls to vividly conjure up a bright future for us, with us being the leading character in all our romantic movie plots: the imagination propelled us up with hope and anticipation for the future. Little did we know the realities of adult life and we naively believed in the everlasting happiness of marital bliss.

We were fortunate enough to get our time to grow into adults and then enter the adult world of responsibilities and realities. We put behind our dolls and teenage imaginations. However, this COVID-19 lockdown crisis that we are living through, is making many boys and girls give up their childhood way before its time and sadly amidst the fear and panic about the virus, many of us are not seeing it. 

Child marriage has been steadily increasing during the lockdown and this is extremely worrisome. Even in pre lockdown years, the number of child marriages in India was problematic. Girls Not Brides states that 27% of girls in India are married before their 18th birthday and 7% are married before the age of 15 and according to UNICEF India has the highest absolute number of child brides in the world – 15,509,000. Now with the lockdown in place, the numbers are expected to shoot up. 

Childmarriage: livelihood and security

As COVID-19 lockdown continue to increase the uncertainties, many are losing their livelihood. People are staring at a blank future and don’t know how to make sense out of a crisis when they don’t have any money coming in. As days go by, and whatever little savings are getting fast depleted in procuring food and essentials, they fear about the future when hunger will overpower them to do things that they would not do otherwise. 

John Roberts, Programme Head, Southern Region, C.R.Y (Child Rights and You) says, “In the lockdown, the livelihood scenario is hit so badly. There is greater stress, indebtedness and desperation. Famish and poverty have become worse. There is a huge connect between livelihood stress and pushing children into marriage.” 

Vasudev Sharma, Executive Director, CRT-Child Rights Trust, says, “Economic factors are the primary reason for most of the child marriages. I see child marriages at two levels – one, families want free labour (younger the girl, more obedient and subservient she is); second, the son of the family will come back to the house every evening (and will not go in search of love outside).”

Vasudev adds that there may be some social pressure that may operate on the families, wherein relatives, matchmakers and neighbours may motivate/persuade the parents with adolescent girls to marry her off at the earliest. John also notes how patriarchy, culture all have a role in fuelling child marriage, especially during a crisis. 

Child marriage and shut schools

When schools were functional, it kept the children in schools. Most parents and communities would not dare to get the children married, as it would bring in trouble for them with the alert and responsible school authorities reporting the plans or the marriage itself to the child protection services.

However, with the lockdown in place and schools shut, many contriving parents and communities are making the most out of it. Also, with uncertainties about livelihood looming large for parents, many are forced to go back to the relatively secure and comfortable lives of their native place and communities living there.

As parents move, so will their children move with them. Many children who otherwise would have been safer and secure in schools and hostels are now thus put in a situation where their rights as children will have no value whatsoever, especially when parents and communities do not ensure children’s security.  

Vasudev, says, “As we see and understand that there is a long holiday (till September schools would not start). This long period may work against the interest of the children, particularly girl children – pushing them into marriage or child labour or such victims of crimes.” He also adds, “When some of the families have to return to their workplaces, maybe in urban areas, they may consider the adolescent girls as a burden and may think of getting them married.”

Child marriage, SRHR during lockdown:

Every phase of the lockdown has posed huge challenges to ensure sexual and reproductive health and services are accessible and available to all. Unmarried girls, especially, were hit hard when they discovered that they are pregnant. When living with parents and having neither cultural sanctions to be an unwed mother nor get a safe medical termination of pregnancy, they took up the “only option” put forward or rather forced upon them by their parents viz a marriage, even though it meant that they are marrying as minors.

For the already married minor girls, the lockdown not only pushed them into a hurried marriage but is also pushing them into early pregnancy. They have little choices on contraception and abortion services during the lockdown. They have limited access to transport and even if they do reach the places they are turned away by the service providers who are working in limited capacities amidst the fear of asymptomatic virus carriers.

It is anticipated that this lockdown will have a long term impact on minors due to the unwanted and unintended pregnancies. The teenage girls are being forced to be mothers when they are not ready for it. 

John says, “evidence gathering studies which we, at CRY, have conducted in the past in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka have shown us that teenage pregnancies occur. Young girls who are forcefully married end up in a miserable marriage. Spousal abuse happens, husband abandons wife or husband and wife live separately. Early and child marriages ruin the lives of girls.”

Report and Rescue:

The lockdown has posed challenges to the prevention of child marriages. With the initial weeks having no clarity from the government about the dos and dont’s of lockdown, many parents took advantage of the absence of the Child Marriage Protection Officers. Though some instances were reported to the ChildLine 1098 and the police, most of the time such child marriages have gone unnoticed and unreported before the marriage.

With the breakdown of civil registration systems at many places during the lockdown, many child marriages have escaped the scrutiny of the law and its subsequent course. Vasudev explains, “You get to know about a large number of child marriages only when the daughter-in-law arrives at the husband’s house and the worse situation when the below 18 daughters-in-law reaches the PHC and the AWC.” 

To prevent and to protect:

Vasudev suggests immediate measures that need to be done to prevent child marriages, “The urgent need is that the local Govt (Grama Panchayats) take a census/count of all the children in their vicinity and jurisdiction and particularly adolescent girls from a protection perspective.”  He explains that though the local school or AWC may have the count of the children who were otherwise in the same village all the while, the count of the new arrivals (migrants who have returned, girls who have come back from hostels and such arrangements) need to be recorded. This can help in assessing the needs of the children during the lockdown – their nutrition, medical help, protection.

He stresses on the importance of conducting intensive public education/warning about dire action if any child marriages are attempted and thinks it is highly needed to educate all girls and boys, adolescent boys and men about the legal actions that they have to face if they attempt child marriages and child abuse. And to respond according to the COVID-19 times, he suggests considering any child abuse in the form of child marriage or sexual abuse under the Disaster Management Act.

John draws attention to the need for more inclusive packages from the government that keeps the children also as a major focus. He says that if one looks at the budget allocation or resource allocation so far, and also especially of the lockdown, it appears that children do not exist at all. He remarks, “There is very little from a child’s perspective.”

With schools closed and uncertainties looming about when the reopening shall be, many children are losing out on their mid-day meals that kept their tummies full and hunger at bay. Anganwadis which used to be the go-to place for many adolescents for nutrition and supplements now stays shut at the blank faces of these youngsters. And so far, it appears that the government has not opened its eyes to the perils of children during this lockdown. “As long as parents are hungry, as long as children are hungry, there will be always the desperation. The hunger will push people into all kinds of situations. The state must look into far more comprehensive responses, especially from the point of view of the poor,” adds John.

Experts suggest that the state and NGOs need to collaborate and work together to ensure the safety, nutrition, health, education of the children. Especially during this pandemic, it is imperative that the needs of the children are met appropriately, such that the trauma and stress of children too find a place in the discourse to solutions in the times of lockdown. Many children are not aware of the “whys” of the lockdown. They are silent spectators to this unprecedented time, unable to comprehend the tectonic shifts that are happening to their little world they are in. While urban and rural boys and girls may experience lockdown differently, one thing is sure that they are all suffering in their own worlds. 

For the young readers benefit, who are not well versed with the government’s role and mechanisms in place to report and prevent child marriage, Vasudev Sharma, Executive Director, CRT-Child Rights Trust, elaborates on how the system works:

“The Prohibition of Child Marriages Act (PCMA) 2006 empowers everyone to complain if they come to know about any possible child marriages. The local authorities – School Head Masters, ANM, Grama Panchayat PDOs, Supervisors of the AWCs are the CMPOs (Child Marriage Prohibition Officers). All police sub-inspectors and above rank are also CMPOs. There are hundreds of other officers at taluk and district who have the authority to prevent and file cases if they get to know about child marriages.

One can reach out to police or ChldLine 1098 about the possible child marriages (anybody, adult or children – the victim or any child). All are assured of maintaining anonymity. Their identity will not be revealed.

But we urge that the information should reach the authority at the earliest. Don’t wait for the marriage day. We are not supermen or women to appear in a jiffy to stop the marriage as it happens in Indian films! We too require time to prepare, plan and arrive at the village to take up action.

The ChildLine 1098 representatives or police or DCPU would visit the site on receipt of the information and conduct their own inquiry and take necessary measures.

If the child requires to be rescued from the location, she would be provided shelter under the state care after producing the child before the Child Welfare Committee. The girl’s education would not be affected and she can always go back to her family once the situation subsides.  The family would be counselled to prevent child marriages and the authorities may even file a case against the perpetrators.

If the marriage is performed, filing the case becomes inevitable under various sections – PCMA, IPC and even as per the POCSO.

If there is any adult hand in instigating the girl to elope, that will be considered as kidnap and further measures will be taken along with POCSO and IPC provisions.”

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