Aseventeen-year old girl’s desperate run of eleven kilometres to reach the nearest government office in Murshidabad in West Bengal to escape from a forced marriage, has grabbed media attention. No, this is not an isolated instance. Childline India Foundation( CIF), which manages the emergency phone service, CHILDLINE (1098), received 5,584 distress calls from March 20 to June 20, 91 per cent from minor girls, seeking protection from coercive marriages, mostly from the states of Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana.

CIF’s resources mobilisation head, Vikas Puthran, however, was categorical that the number ‘was significantly lower, almost half, than that of last year during this period. Many couldn’t reach out as their access to mobile phones, and to friends, teachers and other concerned adults to whom they could have confided in, has been curtailed or cut off during the lockdown.’ Sadly, child marriage is also a global phenomenon. An estimated 12 million under-18 girls are married every year, nearly one in every three seconds.

Amidst this raging pandemic, UNFPA had already warned that ‘it would have a catastrophic impact on women and girls There could be an extra 13 million child marriages during the next decade’, while Patricia Scotland, Secretary General, Commonwealth, expressed dismay that like before ‘women and girls will bear the brunt. There will be an upsurge in early and forced marriages’. Now, India, reeling under the impacts of the prolonged lockdown with a soaring rate of unemployment, huge job losses and a large scale reverse migration, is also witnessing unsettling effects on its social fabric.

In such a cataclysmic situation, many distraught families in a state of utter helplessness, are likely to marry off their minor daughters, the ‘perceived burden’, just as a ‘survival mechanism’, as ‘poverty is a known driver of child marriages’. For many families, it may be a way of reducing the number of children to support or paying a lesser amount of dowry and doing it during the period of containment, is a means to make the affair less expensive and concealed. The vulnerabilities of adolescent girls have been further exacerbated by school closures, as it is believed that ‘schools protect girls…….when they are shut the risks of marriage become very heightened’.

The UNICEF, June, 2020, report highlighted that ‘school closures have adversely impacted 247 million children in India’, while UNESCO flagged that it had affected ‘ the adolescent girls’. Mr Yashwant Jain, Member, NCPCR, however, contested such apprehensions, saying that ‘there may be sporadic incidents, but it cannot be generalised since social gatherings play a big role in a marriage Not many people would like to go for it when social distancing is the norm’. Nevertheless, Sudeshna Roy, Member, WBCCPR, confirmed that ‘the commission received 136 complaints between March 20 and April 14, almost two and half times higher than the normal times, and it could foil about 90 per cent of such attempts.

A help desk has been set up from June this year to handle the present spike in the wake of lockdown related hardship and closures.’ Rishi Kant, Director, Shakti Vahini, a Delhi-based NGO, fighting against child marriages and trafficking, feared that ‘many minor girls might get entrapped by the child traffickers when the organised racketeers outsmart the gullible parents’. Nevertheless, India registered an overall reduction in the prevalence of child marriages from 47 per cent (NFHS-3, 2005- 06)) to 27 per cent (NFHS- 4,2015-16). West Bengal (44 per cen), now tops the list with the highest number of child marriages in the country, followed by others like Bihar (42 per cent), Jharkhand (39 per cent), Andhra Pradesh (36 per cent) and Rajasthan (33 per cent).

Ms Roy, Member, WBCCPR, asserted that ‘the state has the strict surveillance system and a large scale reporting, which may not be the case in other states. Schemes like Kanyashree, which dis-incentivises child marriages, have also created widespread awareness.’ Yes, India does have a deterrent law, the Prohibition of Child Marriages Act (PCMA), 2006, which replaced the colonial era Act of 1929. Many legal experts, however, dismissed it as ‘inherently deficient for making child marriages per se legally valid, unless nullified by either of the parties to the marriage’, which, they argued ‘happens rarely in reality’.

To add teeth to it, ‘the Act should declare all child marriages marriages illegal per se and have overriding power over all personal laws’. Mr Jain, member, NCPCR admitted that ‘the Act needs changes and it is already under scrutiny. Many suggestions have been received’. Mrs Mohini Giri, former chairperson, Women’s Commission, however, observed that ‘law alone cannot act as an antidote against the deeply rooted socio-religious prejudices not common only among rural impoverished families but also among the urban affluent Our educational system should be thoroughly revamped to negate all stereotyping.’

A 2017 Action Aid report has found that, contrary to popular perception, nearly one in four girls in rural areas and one in five in urban areas married early. On the flip side, India is yet to be a signatory to the Convention on Consent to Marriage, Minimum Age for Marriage and Registration for Marriages, 1964, which among other things, obligates countries to deny legal validity to any marriage without the full and free consent of both parties and mandates registration of all marriages. We are yet to have a national law for compulsory registration and different states continue to formulate their own rules.

Unfortunately, the criminality in child marriages is yet to sink in Indian psyche. In 2016, the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), recorded only 326 cases under the (PCMA), 2006. India continues to be the home to the largest number of child brides in the world, with an estimated 1.5 million under-18 marriages per year (UNICEF). We do have a National Plan of Action, 2016, which targets to reduce the prevalence of child marriage, especially among girls, to 15 per cent by 2021. A National Child Protection Policy is also on the anvil. There are a plethora of supportive schemes under the ICDS umbrella, apart from the flagship Beti Bachao and Beti Padhao scheme across the country.

Yet, the latest Sample Registration System data is an eye-opener which brought to focus India’s abysmally low sex ratio of 899 (2016-18). Many experts commented that ‘such a skewed gender ratio results in marriage squeeze, and in turn, increases child marriage and trafficking’. The spectre of child marriage looms large on India’s around 120 million adolescent girls. A girl child is still accorded low value, and thrust into a lifelong trauma. The menace is the manifestation of our structural inequalities, which are likely to be further reinforced by the pandemic repercussions and reverse whatever little gains have been made so far.

The devastating pandemic is yet to run its full course. In the middle of all around uncertainties, the UN has urged nations of the world ‘to have a whole of society approach in every pandemic recovery package and budgeting of resources, and the gendered impacts of the pandemic must be factored in’. India did announce a mega Rs 20 lakh crore stimulus package, claimed to be the world’s largest. But, does it echo the sentiments of inclusivity expressed by the world body?

(The writer is a retired Indian Information Service Officer, and a media educator. She can be reached at [email protected])