Trigger warning: Mention of self-harm, suicide. If you feel suicidal or know someone in distress, please reach out to them with kindness and call these numbers of local emergency services, helplines, and mental health NGOs)
Rahi (name changed), 16, stood at the edge of the well, resolved to jump. She wanted to study further, now she just wants to end her life.
A few days back, she pleaded with the caste leaders in her village in Rajasthan’s Barmer district to not send her off to her in-laws. The pleas fell into deaf ears.
She was 10 when she was married off and asked to drop out of school. But, due to the COVID-19 lockdown, Rahi's in-laws became anxious and insecure and wanted her to move in with them permanently. They also thought that the social ceremony could be held without much expenditure and started pressuring Rahi's family to send her off.
Rahi was reluctant and pleaded with her father who gave in to his daughter's happiness and went ahead to nullify the marriage. But, there was a problem - the social clout of her in-laws in the village.
Rahi belongs to the Manganiyar community, a hereditary Muslim group found near the desert of Barmer, who make their livings as musical performers for higher-caste patrons.
Not happy with Rahi and her father's decision to annul the marriage, her in-laws took the help of wealthy Rajput families in the village to put pressure on Rahi's family. The in-laws were influential and got caste leaders from 12 villages to hold a panchayat where Rahi expressed her wish to continue her study and not be married off. Her pleas were dismissed and her family was warned of action if they tried to annul the marriage.
What followed were pressures and threats from upper caste families in the village. Rahi and her family received threats of being expelled and ostracised from their own community. Rahi wanted to end her family's misery once and for all by jumping into the well.
Fortunately, a local social activist crossing the well spotted her and sensed trouble. The activist managed to stop Rahi from ending her life and helped her fight the legal battle after which the groom's family took a step back and stopped pressuring her.
‘There is No Data’
This incident happened in August 2020, the same time when there was 88 percent increase in child marriages across the country in comparison to August 2019, as per a reply by Union Ministry of Women and Child Development to a RTI sought by Rajya Sabha MP Amar Patnaik of the Biju Janata Dal.
Patnaik, in an article for The Telegraph recently, wrote, "I had raised an unstarred question during the 252nd brief monsoon session of Parliament. Surprisingly, the ministry’s response was arbitrary and inexplicable, claiming that as per the information received from the National Crime Records Bureau, there was no data to indicate a rising number of child marriages in India. Despite sufficient circumstantial evidence to suggest an increase, the response to the question ostensibly means that neither has the government maintained a database on child marriages during the lockdown, nor has it conducted any in-depth survey. The NCRB either did not collect such data, or such acts do not get reported as they are crimes. Thus, sadly, there is not even an acknowledgment of this simmering crisis. This is where the problem lies."
“One of the major reasons for this spike is poverty, induced and escalated by Covid-19. To survive in this pandemic, economically disenfranchised parents often resort to child marriage to escape the financial burden of caring for a girl child.”Amar Patnaik, Rajya Sabha MP
The recent report of the UNICEF on the impact of COVID-19 on child marriages states that India is among the five countries that account for half of the child marriages in the world. One of the Sustainable Development Goals adopted by India as a member of the United Nations was to eliminate the practice of child marriage by 2030.
Child marriages were outlawed in India 90 years ago, but despite laws and different government programmes, the practice has remained prevalent in several parts of India, especially in the rural areas. COVID-19 lockdown has only aggravated the crisis, according to many experts.
'Was Abandoned by Family After Being Termed a Manglik’
17-year-old Sucheta is living in a Child Care Institution in Odisha’s Nayagarh for the past one month. She was called a Manglik (a superstition among some Hindus where the girl is thought to be bad luck for the family) and abandoned by her daily wage-earning family, after her marriage was prevented by local activists and police.
Speaking to The Quint over the phone, Sucheta says, “My family, dependent on the Rs 300 per month earning of my father, could not afford my further studies after Class 10. My younger brother, a toddler, and younger sister, in Class 5, had to continue their education, so I dropped out. I was considered a burden for my stepmother whom my father married after my own mother passed away 10 years ago. During the lockdown, weddings were cheaper because a lesser number of people could be invited, due to government restrictions.”
“They did not want to delay lest they lose out on the opportunity to get rid of me for so cheap, so they fixed my marriage.”
On the day of the marriage, one of the members in the village called a local activist working in co-ordination with Oxfam India and CHILDLINE. Childline India foundation is a non-government organisation in India that operates a telephone helpline called Childline, for children in distress. With the intervention of the activists and local police, the marriage was stopped but the family did not want to “accept her back.”
So, she was brought to a child care home. Sucheta says she feels “safe” now and wants to further pursue computer studies and become a teacher.
From April 2020 till August 2020, more than 180 attempted child marriages have been reported in Odisha according to various district child welfare officers. The local activist says, in May 2021 alone, she has prevented at least 10 cases of child marriage in Nayagarh district, with the intervention of volunteers and local police.
'Dropped Out After Schools Switched to Online Mode. Marriage Followed’
In a scheduled caste majority village of Chanaki near Patna, a teenager girl was married off during lockdown after she herself decided to quit school. Speaking to The Quint, her mother, Rajgiri* says, “After lockdown, schools switched to online learning. I had managed to buy her a smartphone too. But, she found it difficult to cope with classes on phone and decided to quit. She was in the eighth standard.”
According to a policy brief by Right to Education Forum published in January 2021, ten million girls in India could drop out of secondary school due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Rajgiri says “girls being married off at an early age is a norm in their community.”
“We feel scared what if some ‘unch-neech’ (wrongdoing) happens with our girls before they are married? They are adolescents, we don’t want to take any risks. If something wrong happens, nobody will marry our daughters after that.”Rajgiri*, Mother of a child bride
Sarvesh Kumar, a local activist, who had tried to counsel the family out of marrying the daughter says he was unsuccessful in convincing them but did not pressure them further because of their “extreme poor economic conditions.”
Verma says he couldn’t confirm the age of the girl either because, in the villages, most people don’t keep a record of birth or school certificates, especially for girls. “We look at their body features and gauge their approximate age,” Sarvesh says.
‘Father, Brother Saw Me Looking at My Phone, Sent me off to My In-Laws’
While the access to internet and smart phones remain low in rural India, even for those families owning at least one smartphone, its use for educating girls has been rare.
In one such incident in Madhya Pradesh, Shalini (name changed), a child bride, was sent off to her in-laws’ home only because she was caught by her father and brother looking at a phone.
The men assumed that she was talking to another man, despite having a husband. Enraged at the possibility of “dishonour to the family”, the brother slapped Shalini. In despair and anger, she consumed poison and was rushed to the hospital.
She was lucky to survive, but as a result of the incident, Shalini was packed off to live with her in-laws. After the suicide attempt, her husband, who is into construction, stopped speaking to her.
As soon as this happened, three other girls from her village were sent to their respective marital homes.
‘Going Back to Century-Old Gender Norms’
Shabnam Aziz, Lead of Adolescent Girls Program by the Educate Girls NGO says, “As families lose livelihoods, face scarcity of food and other basic needs, girls’ health and education, their learning requirements and well-being are getting sidelined. Based on their gender, girls get to eat last. With no access to mid-day meals in schools, as families struggle to buy ration, girls' nutritional needs will be unmet, impacting their physiological development. Increasing pressure to care for their families will have a direct impact on their emotional growth. As patriarchal families return to their earlier gender norms of girls working within households, they will prevent them from going back to school, affecting their learning levels in the long term.”
Patnaik in his article has also written, “Although the government’s consideration to raise the minimum age of marriage for girls from 18 to 21 has been lauded as a progressive move, this alone would not be enough to tackle the menace of child marriage. It might even be counterproductive; there might be a further persecution of girls by their families until the age of 21. Regressive social practices against women are deep-seated in patriarchal society. From the time they are born, girls must have access to education, career opportunities, right to choices regarding marriage and so on. Gender sensitization and awareness programmes should also be made mandatory in schools.”
(Case studies with the help of UNICEF India, Oxfam India, Educate Girls and Suresh Kumar in Bihar.)
(This story was first published on 3 June 2021 and has been reposted to mark World Day Against Child Labour.)