Reporter + Camera: Tabeenah Anjum
Video Editor: Deepthi Ramdas
Senior Editor: Shelly Walia
Producer: Mythreyee Ramesh
(In our video series, 'लड़की हूं... पढ़ना चाहती हूं – India's Girls Out of School,' we are bringing you stories of girls from across the country who were forced to discontinue education and pushed into early marriages or work. From Madanpur Khadar in Delhi, we went to Govandi in Mumbai, and are planning to tell these stories from Madhya Pradesh and West Bengal as well. Support us to help complete this series, so that one of the most ignored stories of the pandemic can be told.)
Sofiya Khan is an 18-year-old young mother, residing in Rajasthan's Chaksu, barely 40 kilometres away from the capital city of Jaipur. During the COVID-19 pandemic, and the lockdown during that period, Sofiya's family was pushed into poverty, forcing her parents to make a decision about their daughter's future – getting her married.
In a span of two years, the teenager dropped out of school, got married, and gave birth to a child – with her dream of education long forgotten. Speaking to The Quint, outside her home in Chaksu, Sofiya said:
"I used to be very happy when I was studying because I had hope that since my parents are letting me study, I should work hard, I should do something. I wanted to take things in my own hands. But after the lockdown happened, my parents became poorer. Whatever work we had, everything was stopped. We became very poor, and our food, water; everything was affected."
Sofiya got married to a daily-wage labourer in June 2020, and gave birth to her son in 2020 – during the Delta wave. But with the family still not making enough money, the mother and child suffered greatly.
"He is eight-months-old. He is slightly weak because I could not breastfeed him enough. I delivered him during the lockdown when almost everything was shut. We could not earn much, so we could not eat much. I could not produce enough milk."Sofiya
Responding to an RTI, the Ministry of Women and Child Development (WCD) said that data from August 2020 showed that there was 88 percent increase in child marriages across the country in comparison to August 2019 – with an unusual spike in the March to August 2020 period.
To survive the harsh realities of the pandemic, parents resorted to marrying off their girl child to escape the 'financial burden'.
'Got Married Because Father Was Struggling'
Chaksu welcomed many child brides during the pandemic – and like Sofiya, 16-year-old Samiya* (name changed) was married off by her parents as well. She agreed because her father was struggling to make ends meet. She has barely opened her schoolbooks since then.
"My father asked me if I wanted to get married. I told him I did not want to. But I said yes eventually because my father was struggling. I told him, 'No problem, papa, get me married.' I told him that it was okay and that I could get married. Then it did happen. Once you are married you have to take care of your in-laws. I really wanted to study. But I could not."
Samiya says she can count the number of times she has stepped out of her home after her son was born. She spends all her day cooking, cleaning, and taking care of everyone in the family – leaving her no time for her own education.
Ever since I got married, I've got no chance to open my books. The other thing is that we are not very well-read in the family. We don't go anywhere. We just work as daily labourers. We get Rs 200, Rs 300, and if we get Rs 400, we feel very happy that someone has given us Rs 400 for our work.Samiya to The Quint
'Forced to Drop Out After Brother's Death'
A street away from Samiya and Sofiya lives Neetu Singh. She and her younger sister were forced to drop out of school after her brother took his life over losing his job due to the pandemic. While Neetu yearns to go back to school and pursue class nine, she spends her days doing household chores, to support her mother who is now stepping out for work.
"My father lives with my uncle. He left us about five years ago. Since then, my brother used to take care of all our household expenses. Due to coronavirus, my brother lost his job. He became stressed because of that, and then he passed away."Neetu Singh
"We have not gone to school for two years. I like going to school. But I am not able to go. There is no one to pay our fees. My mother now goes to work to help sustain the family. So, there is no one at home," Neetu told The Quint.
Looking Back Fondly...But With Little Hope
All three girls from the Chaksu village have one thing in common – they look back at their time in school with fond memories. But they also know that there is little hope in looking back.
"There's a lot of fun in attending school. There's a lot of studying, then once we pass after one whole year's hard work, it is even more satisfying. You feel very happy and you think that now that you are passing and doing well, you have to do something. But all that has ended due to the lockdown."Saniya Khan to The Quint
With loss of education, 16-year-old Samiya also lost her childhood.
"I did not have any worries earlier. I used to come back from school, then go to play with friends. I would return from there and eat whatever my parents gave. There never used to be an issue. Now I have a hundred tensions. Give food to in-laws, take care of them, then worry about my child, and about my husband," she said.
Does she hope to get back? "Now I have a child. I have in-laws. What will people think? Why is she going to school and studying? Does she not want to take care of her family," she said, with a hint of hesitation.