‘We Have No Choice’: COVID-19 Is Worsening Marathwada's Child Marriage Problem
Age-old traditions and COVID-induced poverty are pushing young girls in Maharashtra into child marriages.
(Names of children and family members have been changed to protect their identity.)
Shikha is number four out of the six daughters of sugarcane cutters Ramesh and Sudha in Ambajogai, a small city in Maharashtra's Marathwada region. Child marriage runs as a tradition in the family. Her three elder sisters were married at the age of 11, 13, and 12, respectively.
But Shikha did not expect that the 'big day' for her will come during the COVID-19 pandemic, that too only at the age of 12. And when the day finally arrived, she tried her best to resist, even ran away from her home. But to no avail.
"Initially I could not understand what was happening with me. They (parents) suddenly told me one day that it was time for me to get married, just like my sisters. I told them that I wanted to study further but nobody listened to me."Shikha (name changed)
Shikha and her family belong to the Sonar community, a recognised backward caste in Maharashtra.
In May 2021, when the entire country was scrambling for oxygen cylinders and hospital beds at the peak of the second wave of the coronavirus pandemic, Shikha was fighting for her dreams.
Her parents had arranged her marriage with a 17-year-old boy from the same community. She protested and when no one listened to her, she ran away on the day of the wedding, only to be found at the city bus stand five hours later. Subsequently, Shikha was married and sent off to her in-laws — 100 km from Ambajogai — in Beed, Maharashtra.
Age-Old Traditions or COVID-Induced Poverty: What Made Shikha a Child Bride?
"We had no choice," Shikha's mother Sudha told The Quint. "Because of the pandemic, our income has dried up and we still have two more daughters to marry. What other option did we have?" she says.
Sudha and her husband Ramesh are sugarcane cutters, two out of over 7 lakh in the Marathwada region of Maharashtra. These cane cutters are seasonal workers who migrate to western Maharashtra and Karnataka from October to April to cut the sugarcane harvest. For the rest of the year, they work as daily wage-labourers doing odd jobs in cities and villages.
COVID-19 has pushed several such sugarcane cutters on the brink of poverty as their employed opportunities dried up during the lockdown.
Shikha's family also suffered. "We somehow managed to sail through the first lockdown," her mother said. "However, the second lockdown was more stringent and we had no savings. There were too many mouths to feed."
Rescued, But Parents Won't Take Her Back
A fortnight after Shikha was taken to her in-laws in Beed, some locals and neighbours informed child rights activists about her presence in the house. It was then that Tatvasheel Kamble, a child rights activist in Beed, along with the cops, rescued Shikha and took her back to Ambajogai, where her parents lived.
"It took her (Shikha) some time to open up to us and tell us what had happened with her," Kamble says.
"Once she told us about her parents, we took her back to Ambajogai. However, her parents refused to take her in."Tatvasheel Kamble, Child Rights Activist
Kamble wasn't surprised. In such cases, parents often refuse to take the girls back after they are rescued, he tells The Quint. "For now, Shikha has been placed in a government-run shelter home. There are several other kids like her, who live in that home. Her online education has also resumed," Kamble added.
We asked Shikha's mother about their decision to not take their child back in. She told us that as per the tradition of the family, once a girl is married she "cannot return" to her parents' home under any circumstances.
"We won't be able to feed or bear the burden of her education. We cannot have her back. She was sent to her husband's house. That is her home now," Sudha said.
Further, Kamble also said that in many such cases, the activists and government officials do not prefer sending the child back to their parents. "There is a risk involved. Many parents take the girls back in and then again send them to their in-laws' homes," he told The Quint.
'I Want To Become a Doctor', Says Shikha; But What About Others?
At the shelter home, Shikha is focusing on her studies. "I want to become a doctor," she says.
"Until a few months back, I had no plans, but now I want to become a doctor and help others. I attend all the online classes and am focusing on my studies."Shikha
Shikha has been enrolled in fifth standard in a government school in Beed.
But she is not the only one. Data suggest that an increasing number of young girls are being pushed into child marriages because of the coronavirus pandemic.
In Maharashtra alone, the Women and Child Development Department of the state intercepted at least 780 child marriages between January 2020 and June 2021. The data also suggested that there was a 78.3 percent increase in child marriages in the state between January and September 2020 as compared to the same period in 2019.
As per the latest report by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), in 2020, there as been a 50 percent rise in the cases of child marriages across India, as compared to 2019.
The figures are even worse when we look at the data on a global level. As per a report published by UNICEF in March 2021, with 25 million child marriages averted in the last decade, 10 million additional girls at risk of child marriage due to COVID-19.
As per the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act 2006, child marriage is illegal in India and the marriage of girls below 18 years and boys below 21 is a punishable offence. The maximum number of cases of child marriage in Maharashtra were reporter from the districts of Beed, Jalna and Aurangabad.
"These are conservative figures," Kamble points out. "Moreover, children like Shikha who come from impoverished and marginalised backgrounds are at a greater risk of becoming victims of child marriages as compared to others."
(With illustrations by Erum Gour)
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