Covid distress quadrupled child marriages in Maharashtra's largest district

In Ahmednagar, incidents of child marriage were especially high among low-income families who reasoned that weddings were cheaper during the pandemic.

Covid distress quadrupled child marriages in Maharashtra's largest district
Wedding mehndi on 16-year-old Rani's hands.
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“Every time I get a call about a child marriage, my whole life flashes in front of my eyes again,” said Praveen Shyam Kadam, 27, a team member of the Ahmednagar unit of the national helpline Childline India (1098), which covers over 598 districts in India.

Praveen’s response stems from his own family, where his mother had been married off at the age of 12. He has handled over 120 calls about suspected cases of child marriage ever since he joined the Childline team in 2018. His mission is to stop these marriages from happening.

Since the pandemic began last March, the number of calls on suspected child marriage received by the Ahmednagar team has almost quadrupled. Between April 2020 and March 2021, they fielded 110 calls, while 16 were recorded from April to June 5. To put this in perspective, the district helpline received 29 such calls from April 2019 to March 2020.

Officials told Newslaundry that the majority of these marriages take place in low-income families, who are struggling to make ends meet with the pandemic and lockdowns.

The nine-member team works out of a small, one-storey office in a congested thoroughfare in Ahmednagar’s Nagar tehsil. A desk with a white landline phone is manned 24/7 by team members in shifts. They deal with calls related to child rights’ violations including trafficking, abuse, child marriage, and missing children. Calls are transferred to the Ahmednagar team from Childline’s headquarters in Mumbai.

Standard protocol while receiving a call is to record the details and then contact the local police station, sending them an email summarising the situation. The police and the gram sevak of the respective village, who is also the designated child welfare officer for the village, then follow up on the case.

For a child marriage case, Childline’s policy is to intervene within 20 to 60 minutes of receiving the phone call. The tip-off sometimes comes from the child herself, or a relative or friend. In these marriages, the girls are usually between 11 and 17, while the bridegrooms are not minors.

When a child marriage complaint is recorded in Ahmednagar city, members from the Childline team accompany the police and visit the spot. The parties involved are made to sign a Rs 100 bond and submit in writing that they will wait until the girl child turns 18 before getting her married. The parties also have to present themselves before a child welfare committee two days later for counselling; the committee subsequently conducts follow-ups and surprise checks. An FIR is not always registered.

Praveen Shyam Kadam joined Childline in 2018.

Praveen Shyam Kadam joined Childline in 2018.

While the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act of 2006 sets the marriageable age for girls at 18 and boys at 21, the law does not apply to “engagements”. According to members of the Childline team, this “loophole” is often used when authorities reach the marriage venue – that this isn’t a “wedding” but an engagement ceremony or a “meeting” to fix the marriage.

“There is a drastic rise in the cases of child marriage amid the pandemic,” said Hanif Shaikh, assistant director of Childline and chairperson of the child welfare committee in Ahmednagar. “The primary reason for this is the financial damages encountered by people because of Covid. Also, people are fearful about what will happen to their daughters if they [the parents] die of Covid.”

Most child marriages are carried out by daily wage labourers, Shaikh said, who have lost income during the pandemic and are struggling to make ends meet.

“Marriage is a costly affair but because of Covid restrictions, it became cheaper as large gatherings were not allowed,” he explained. “Therefore, many people who were economically distressed during the pandemic thought of it as an opportunity to get their daughters married as it would reduce their expenses.”

The sex ratio in Pathardi district of Ahmednagar is 927, according to the 2011 census. Shaikh said that young men in villages “struggle to find a girl to marry”. This has driven up instances of child marriage.

He added, “We have also observed that in many cases, the parents of the girl are paid off by the boy’s family, and the latter also bears the cost of the marriage...Previously, people were reluctant to give their daughters to families in tehsils like Pathardi, Karjat, Jamkhed and Parner. But because of Covid, the situation has changed. Unmarried boys hailing from big farmer families get married now by paying off the families of girls belonging to marginal and low-income groups.” Pathardi, Karjat, Jamkhed and Parner are “dry” areas that face a scarcity of water; hence their low appeal.

In November, the Maharashtra government formed a committee under women and child development minister Yashomati Thakur to draft new rules for the Abolition of Child Marriage Act. Since then, there has been no update. Newslaundry reached out to Thakur but did not receive a response.

Childline’s Hanif Shaikh said the “biggest lag” in abolishing child marriage in Maharashtra comes from the government.

“The committee has not done anything concrete,” he said. “We informed the committee about the rise in child marriages but they have not intervened. We sent statistical reports but they are not concerned. Unless the government takes this issue seriously, we will not be able to abolish it.”

‘I don’t want her to suffer like me’

Newslaundry met the families of minors whose marriages were reported to Childline across three villages – Karanji, Raghu Hivre, and Javkhed Khalsa – in Pathardi tehsil.

On December 4, police officials in Javkhed Khalsa stopped the wedding of Neeta, 17. A local had tipped off Childline about the ceremony. The bridegroom was 22 years old.

Neeta’s mother Ganga claimed it had been a “meeting of around 15 people to fix the marriage”, and not a wedding.

Neeti chaffing wheat grains in her home in Javkhed Khalsa.

Neeti chaffing wheat grains in her home in Javkhed Khalsa.

Neeta's mother Ganga was married off at the age of 12.

Neeta's mother Ganga was married off at the age of 12.

Ganga lives in a brick house with Neeta, her husband, and her son Vaibhav. She owns an acre of land and works in other fields to support her family, earning around Rs 150-200 per day.

“The police stopped the meeting and took our statement,” she said. “I made the statement that I will not marry off Neeta until she reaches the age of 18.”

But why does she want her daughter to get married so young?

“I want to keep her safe from the boys in our village, who are of loose character,” Ganga said. “The other thing that concerns me is the behaviour of my husband. He is mentally unstable. He beats me and my children. I am afraid he may even sexually assault my daughter. Because of these reasons, I want her to get married. I want to educate my daughter but I am not capable of doing so.”

Ganga herself was married at the age of 12 to a 17-year-old. “I don’t want her to suffer like me, that’s why I didn’t get her married at the age of 12-13. But I don’t have the resources to educate her further. So, it’s better to get her married once she reaches the age of 18.”

While describing how she herself was married off as a child, Ganga’s eyes welled with tears. Her parents were poor, she said, and could not afford a wedding. Her marriage was fixed up by an aunt who knew her prospective husband was “mentally unstable”, Ganga added, but did not reveal his condition to the family.

Instead, the aunt told Ganga’s parents that they wouldn’t have to spend on the wedding or for dowry. “She asked my parents to come with me to Javkhed Khalsa. We reached at night and the next day, I was married,” Ganga said. “I didn’t even get a chance to see the person with whom I have to spend my whole life.”

Ganga’s husband began beating her a week after their wedding. “Since then, I have been getting beaten. He also beat my children,” she said. “I have been assaulted throughout my marriage. I was maritally raped.” Adding that her husband is unwell, she said her in-laws refuse to take responsibility for him so she’s forced to take care of him. “Every month, I buy him medicines worth Rs 2,000 and also pay Rs 5,000 for monthly injections,” she said.

Meanwhile, Neeta’s wedding hasn’t been cancelled; it’s scheduled to take place once she turns 18 next year. “If someone supports us for her further education,” her mother said, “I will cancel her marriage.”

On her part, Neeta told Newslaundry, “I want to study further but our conditions can’t support it. If Covid hadn’t happened, I would have studied further and my marriage would have taken place later.”

‘So much money is saved’

In Karanji village, the parents of Rani, 16, insisted that the “ceremony” at their home on June 6 was not Rani’s wedding but her engagement. But the cascading mehndi on Rani’s arms, hands and feet tell their own story.

The wedding was stopped after the Childline team received a phone call. The family now says Rani will marry the 27-year-old bridegroom from the same village next June, once she turns 18.

Rani’s father, the sole earner, worked as a farm labourer until last year, earning around Rs 400 a day. Eight months ago, he was partially paralysed on the right side of his body, putting an end to his work. The family is now in debt for Rs 2 lakh, which they borrowed for his treatment. Rani, her mother and sister now work in a nearby field for Rs 200 a day but opportunities have reduced due to Covid. They manage to find work twice or thrice a week.

Rani’s mother is curious as to how the authorities found out about the “engagement” since, she claimed, the family “has no enemies”.

The Childline team, meanwhile, said that they had ramped up their awareness programe about child marriage since April 2020, with a focus on social media. That, along with the lockdown forcing people to spend more time at home and observe what's happening in their neighbours’ houses, could have led to more cases being reported.

A few kilometres away in Raghu Hivre, 17-year-old Keerti was married off last May. Childline received a phone call in June saying that Keerti’s wedding had taken place on May 25 at her uncle’s home, while the lockdown was in force.

The uncle claimed Keerti’s 22-year-old sister had been married, not Keerti herself.

When Newslaundry met Keerti on June 6, her uncle did most of the talking on her behalf. The uncle sat on a cot in their courtyard; she sat nearby on a chair, her head bowed, fighting back tears.

Rani sitting in between her parents.

Rani sitting in between her parents.

Keerti sat weeping on a chair in her uncle's courtyard when Newslaundry met her.

Keerti sat weeping on a chair in her uncle's courtyard when Newslaundry met her.

The courtyard of Keerti's uncle's home.

The courtyard of Keerti's uncle's home.

Keerti lost her mother in 2006 and her father in 2016. She and her four sisters were left in their uncle’s care. All four of her sisters are married; she’s the only one left behind in the house.

Keerti’s education ended after Class 8, since the village does not have a school for higher education. She helps farm her uncle’s five acres of land, where pomegranate is cultivated. “It’s good, what will she do walking to a school far away to study when we have so much farmland to work on?” her uncle said.

Keerti was 11 when her father died. Her wedding was swiftly arranged by her father’s friend with his son. This is the wedding that allegedly took place last year.

“So much money is saved when you hold a wedding in the lockdown,” said her uncle, chuckling. They invited 100 guests instead of the usual 2,500-odd and, he added, “instead of spending Rs 5-6 lakh, the whole affair got wrapped up in just about Rs 1 lakh.”

Newslaundry asked Keerti if she wanted to study further. “I want to,” she said,”but the circumstances are such.”

Childline’s Praveen said Keerti’s case is still open. Her uncle and village panchayat members are in “cahoots” to prove that it had been Keerti’s sister, not Keerti, who got married last year.

Keerti herself echoed her uncle and denied that she was married. Weeping, she said, “My name has been spoiled in the village since that day. People talk behind my back.”

Names of minors and their families changed to protect their identities.

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