Increase in child marriages, a side effect of Lockdown? Avenues for education and employment shut, child marriage on the rise in West Bengal’s poorest areas

19, Aug 2021 | Mohammed Ripon Sheikh

It is well known that there has been a huge imbalance in access to digital education during the Covid-19 Lockdown. However, there has been another sinister fallout that is yet to create the outrage it should have, across India… the increase in cases of child marriages.

According to the Department of Women and Child Welfare, the number of child marriages has risen sharply across the country. There have been studies by various organisations that have shown that the number of child marriages has increased during this time.

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The closure of educational institutions for almost two years has created a kind of uncertainty in the rural areas. Migrant workers have returned home to the villages after losing their city-based jobs in the lockdown. In the rural areas, many poor parents have now been trying to get their children, especially daughters, married off. Some say as the lockdown means there is a restricted movement, they will not have to host too many people at the wedding. This they feel “will reduce” their costs. Some of them also feel that marrying their young daughters off, will also make the girls the responsibility of their in-laws, thus easing the financial ‘burden’ on the parents. Some just say they are following ‘tradition’.

Malda, Murshidabad and Birbhum districts of West Bengal now have a large number of poor migrant workers who have returned home. Child marriage has increased at a substantial rate in these three districts. I discovered that 25 percent of girls were married off before they reached 18 years of age!

Child marriage has shot up in the state in the wake of the lockdown since 2020. Expressing concern, the Calcutta High Court directed the police superintendent of each district to look into the issue. The Chief Justice, according to news reports, had asked them to check if such incidents were happening for economic reasons? Or was it a method of child trafficking? At the same time, the court had directed that immediate legal action be taken against those involved in child marriage.

I met Mohammad Shahidullah, headmaster of Edrakpur High School in Birbhum district’s Paikar police station, who said that the number of child marriages at the village level had increased now, when compared to a few years ago. “We have contacted many families with the help of the administration after receiving such news of child marriage from the school authorities. After persuading many parents, I was able to stop the weddings, and in many cases I had to take administrative action,” he said, adding that there were still some who conducted child marriages secretly. “We need to be more aware so that we can understand people so that we can eradicate this disorder from society,” said Shahidullah.

I also met Rakhi*, who was a child bride, married off barely after passing secondary school. She wants to study more but says her wish has not been fulfilled. “Marriage is a barrier to achieving dreams of millions of girls like me,” she said.

Child marriage is on the rise due to the growing poverty across the country. Under lockdown conditions, parents also fear that their daughters are more likely to be sexually harassed by people. According to reports in local papers, this has also been cited as a reason parents give in many cases of child marriage. However, this increase in child marriage has not been acknowledged at the government level. Officials refused to comment and say there is no evidence as such. However, the ground reality is different. I discovered that many parents in the rural areas are willing to marry their girls off to a boy from “abroad”.

According to a UNICEF report, more than 200 million girls in India get married at an early age, of whom 100 million get married before the age of 15. Child marriage can destroy not only the physical, but also the mental health of girls. The risk of an unwanted pregnancy, miscarriages, are high and malnutrition results in lifelong ailments.

However, all is not lost. I am a part of a group of volunteers who try and counsel families against child marriage. Some listen, some ignore us. We also alert the local school heads when we hear any rumours of a potential child marriage. This has proven to be effective, as a school principal or headmaster is seen as an authority figure and when she intervenes many more listen. Hopefully, with increasing awareness, one hopes that the young women themselves rise up and say no to marriage till they reach at least 18 years of age, and young men stand their ground and refuse to marry child brides.

This report is part of CJP’s Grassroots Fellowship Program, and has been written by researcher Ripon Sheikh, who is travelling around rural Bengal, tracking and documenting social and cultural movements of indigenous people.

Meet CJP Grassroot Fellow Mohammed Ripon Sheikh

Ripon Sheikh

This young man, who has graduated with a B.Sc degree from Burdwan University, loves trivia. Sheikh’s passion to research and seek “unknown information about World History” has earned him many medals and trophies at various University and state-level Quiz championships, and youth festivals. Sheikh is a born orator and a natural community leader. He has the potential to represent his community, state and country at a global level one day. His immediate goal, however, is to find a job so he can support his parents.

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