LATUR, India—A direct effect of months of pandemic-related lockdown in rural parts of India has been a dramatic increase in child marriages, with some charities and government agencies reporting a threefold rise in one western state.
Meanwhile, groups of teen girls in this region are doing what they can to prevent the illegal marriages of their friends in the middle of the lockdown.
Mayari Pandhari Motiwad, 16, was arranged to be married by her parents to someone from within her community. Her friends, Bhagyshri, 16, and Aisha, 15, had learned that law prohibits the marriage of girls in India before the age of 18 and helped their friend escape what was to be a hushed-up wedding.
In this rural part of the state of Maharashtra, 304 miles from the country’s economic capital, Mumbai, children haven’t been in classrooms since March.
The state’s Department of Women and Child Development said in a report released last month that the number of adolescent girls forced into marriages had increased by about 78 percent through September from the year-earlier period. The main reason given for the increase is pandemic-related unemployment that has families struggling to avoid poverty.
Motiwad, one of the lucky few who avoided that fate, is part of a teen group in her village that receives life-skills training from a mentor appointed by a local charity that works with the community. During the lockdown, the mentor started organizing regular meetings on the chat app WhatsApp.
“We used to meet thrice a week on the WhatsApp group. [Motiwad[wasn’t attending the call. Then, we came to know from other girls that she was about to get married, and her parents forbade her from attending our session,” Asha Gadakar, the community organizer with local charity Kalapandri, told The Epoch Times. She mentors girls in 300 families in four villages.
Gadakar, along with the 10 teens of the WhatsApp group, visited Motiwad’s parents every day for a week, attempting to convince them to let her continue her studies. Their patience and perseverance paid off, and the marriage was stopped.
“Her parents told us they want to get her married amid the lockdown because the expenses would be less,” Gadakar said.
Guru Prasad, the country director of the charity Educo, which funds Kalapandri’s work with the girls in 50 villages in Latur, told The Epoch Times that societal norms contribute to child marriage.
“Getting the girl married is a big responsibility for the family, as well as the community. Cultural beliefs are also contributing to it,” Prasad said, adding that families fear that the girls may fall in love and elope during the lockdown, and this will dishonor the family and the community.
Maya Sorte, 47, who works as a community organizer with Kalapandri, was successful in preventing 10 child marriages during three months of lockdown but couldn’t prevent 18 others, she said in the village of Halihkurd.
One marriage that Sorte prevented was that of 16-year-old Arati Shankar Shindi, a 9th-grade student. Her grandfather wanted her to be married through an arranged alliance because he was afraid she’d be influenced by a girl in the village who had recently fallen in love and married against the wishes of her family.
Sorte said: “I’m glad I could do this for [Shindi]. I got married at 13 years and had my son at 14 and because of early pregnancy, I couldn’t bear a child again. I don’t want that to happen to other children.”
Prasad said that during the lockdown, child marriages are reported less because everyone is confined indoors. “[Families] act out of worries and insecurities, and end up threatening a child’s life.”
The Latur district of Maharashtra has a toll-free helpline that children can utilize to report threats to them and seek help. An official at the helpline told The Epoch Times that during the period of lockdown, it had received more than 200 calls from children, and there was a steep rise in reports of child marriages.
“During the lockdown, the most number of calls we received were from children asking for food, and second-most numbers of calls were about child marriages,” Jaypant Pandurang Jangepanne, the helpline’s assistant coordinator, said.
“We received a call from Nelanga where a 14-year-old girl was being forced to marry a 50-year-old man. On the day of the call itself, we prevented this marriage within five hours.”
The 50-year-old previously had been married to the 14-year-old’s older sister, Jangepanne said.
“After [the sister] died, the family wanted the younger sister to be married to him, as they thought he was earning and would be able to take care of the girl during the lockdown,” he said. Preventing that from happening took a lot of coordination of Jangepanne’s entire team and swift action by the police and district administration.
B.P. Suryavanshi, the president of Kalapandri, told The Epoch Times that his organization has so far prevented 200 child marriages. He said there’s a long-term benefit in preventing child marriages, with parents prioritizing a girl’s education over her marriage, and noted that there’s a difference between “preventing child marriages and stopping child marriage.”
“Stopping child marriages is something we started to do only during the lockdown, but in these cases instead of marriage, the parents engage the child and the marriage happens after the girl turns 18,” he said, adding that the child helpline played a role in preventing 16 child marriages during the lockdown.
Seven out of 10 men in the community in which Kalapandri operates are alcoholics, and the girls in these families are most vulnerable to child marriage, according to Suryavanshi.
“The father daily beats the mother in front of the girl, and she never shares her dreams or wishes with the parents,” he said. “She silently submits to her fate when her parents decide to marry her so early. In our teen groups, we try to make girls aware that this is not right, and we motivate them for education.”
What Needs to Be Done?
Prasad and Suryavanshi say there’s a need for a public campaign to prevent child marriages while the schools are closed during the pandemic. Families need to understand that early marriage can lead to early pregnancy and threaten the life of both the child and the mother, they said.
Kalapandri was given 30 Samsung smartphones by another charity called Cry. These smartphones, provided to teen girls, enabled them to participate in their online classrooms during the lockdown and also attend the life-skill classes conducted weekly by Kalapandri community organizers.
It’s important to “create adolescent groups or forums with girls in villages and empower them to support each other in preventing early marriages,” Prasad said, adding that it’s also important to educate communities about how to protect its children.
Prasad said that there’s a need to strengthen India’s Integrated Child Protection Scheme, a federal government program that brings various stakeholders within the community to build protection for children in difficult circumstances.
“At the community level, this is mostly in papers. We are trying to make it functional by facilitating meetings and training of the village level child protection committees,” Suryavanshi said.
The village-level child protection committees include women employed in the government’s daycare centers, members of the women microfinance groups, and community leaders. This committee (all the women of which had been married before the legal age) played an important role in preventing Shindi’s wedding.