Covid-19 has led to a rise in child marriages
Before the pandemic struck, India was one of the countries where the campaign against child marriages was working. It took a sustained effort by the government by pushing education and awareness but now, there has been a serious setback. This is a worldwide trend. The Global Girlhood Report 2020 says that at least half-a-million girls are now at risk of being victims of forced child marriages as this year comes to an end. Up to 2.5 million girls may be married early due to the pandemic over the next five years, says a Save the Children report. Increased poverty is directly related to child marriage and the girl child has the least access to already strained resources. She is considered a burden, making her vulnerable to early marriage which is why social security is so important at a time like this.
No family should have to choose between a girl child and the prospect of hunger and deprivation. Child marriage brings with it the prospect of early pregnancy. At a time when access to reproductive and sexual health services are not easily available, the life of the girl and her unborn child are at much greater risk. One of the Sustainable Development Goals is that of ending child, but this is something which needs to be reviewed now. One reason, cited by parents, in several surveys is that marriage is way of ensuring the girl child’s safety at a time when many young men are out of jobs and seen as posing a danger to young girls. There have been many instances, according to NGOs, of young men harassing young girls in several places, a reason why marriage is seen as a safety net.
Another is that the restrictions in place because of the pandemic means that parents are spared having to spend on big weddings. With so much uncertainty about when schools will reopen, there is every likelihood of girls not returning to school and this increases the danger of their being married early. Without the safety net of schools, the girl child being forced into marriage is cut off from any possible communication with a teacher or counselor. Most of them do not have access to child helplines though the government has set these us. An added danger is trafficking the girl child, often with the consent of her family which sees the often false promise of work in another place as a way out of poverty for both the family and the child.
But, one way of keeping a check on child marriages during the pandemic would be to ensure that there is a strong cohort of child protection workers among essential health workers. India has a robust system of grassroots workers who have done commendable work in ensuring that health and other social security services reach people on in these dire times. If such workers were incorporated into the system they could keep a check on girl children at risk of early marriage and take steps to avert these. This could be in the form of awareness counseling and helping some benefits reach the family concerned.