Covid and child marriages: How minor girls are fighting back in West UP
Union Minister for Women and Child Development Smriti Irani had told the Parliament earlier this week that there was no data to indicate a surge in child marriages during the lockdown. Asiaville tracked down several instances of attempts of forced child marriages in a small suburb of Western UP itself. Read the ground report.
Kusumlata is 14 years old and studies in Class 8. Due to the raging pandemic, she and her 15-year-old sister Rinki couldn’t attend school this summer, and were forced to stay at home. Both sisters could never have imagined that the COVID-19 outbreak would make their worst nightmares come true, but this did happen when their parents decided to get them married.
A Class 10 student, Rinki desperately sought help to avert her marriage. A written complaint to the Child Welfare Committee (CWC) was submitted on September 14.
Kumari Aarti’s fate was no different. She is 16 years old and a student of Class 11. In order to avert the crisis, she sought the intervention of the district authorities and the CWC. The authorities were informed on Monday that her family was trying to get her married.
Each of these cases takes us to Western Uttar Pradesh’s Bulandshahr. It is an important agricultural district in UP and is located at a distance of roughly 110 kilometres from the national capital.
Despite the pandemic, the custom of child marriages has not stopped in this part of the country. According to the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, a girl cannot be married before the age of 18. However, in rural India, these laws barely matter.
Ironically, the attempts to conduct the marriages of these minor girls in Western UP is happening at a time when the government is considering the idea of increasing the minimum age of marriage for girls from 18 years to 21 years.
Karkaura village is located on the border of Bulandshahr’s Anoopshahr Tehsil. However, it is a part of Sambhal district. 14 year old Sangeeta lives here. Her parents met the prospective groom and his family. The date for the marriage was set for June 16. Invitation cards were published and distributed, and the preparations were in full swing.
Fortunately, Sangeeta managed to call her class teacher from her neighbour’s phone and sought help to stop the forced child marriage. Written complaints were made, and, with the intervention of the Sambhal district authorities, her marriage was stopped.
On June 11, the police, on behalf of the CWC, met the parents. They were asked to make assurances that Sangeeta would not be married until she turned 18, which is the minimum legal age as per the present laws.
“Her parents had turned hostile. She was not allowed to speak to us. After we sought the intervention of the district authorities, her mother told the family of the groom: as the police will not allow Sangeeta to get married, we can get her younger sister married in her place,” 44-year-old Madhu Sharma said. She was the one who had followed up the complaint with the Sambhal District authorities.
“Thankfully, the groom’s family was intelligent enough to understand that replacing Sangeeta with her 12-year-old younger sister would invite more trouble,” she said. A fresh complaint was submitted to stop the attempts at conducting the marriage of Sangeeta’s younger sister.
Asiaville tracked down several other cases of attempts of forced child marriages in a small administrative block - Anoopshahr.
It takes an hour to drive from the district headquarters to reach Anoopshahr - one of the 16 administrative blocks of Bulandshahr.
Salgwa is one of Anoopshahr Tehsil’s roughly 135 villages. In the month of June, the police rushed to Roopa’s (name changed) house late one evening, and managed to stop her marriage at the last moment.
“My mother tried to trick me. They had planned to make me sit directly for the pheras (Hindu ritual of the marriage),” 17-year-old Roopa told this correspondent.
She narrated how during the lockdown, her parents lied to her and made her see the groom.
“My elder sister’s marriage was fixed for June 12. But suddenly, my parents made me see the groom under the pretext of taking me to my mausi’s (aunty) house…Soon clothes were exchanged and I was gifted jewellery. It’s still kept at my home. ” Roopa said. “I clearly told my mother and father: I don’t want to marry right now. I want to complete my studies first.”
The Class 12 student had only one option left to stop her marriage. She got in touch with her school teachers and eventually contacted the CWC.
Despite the assurances given to the police, her parents intended to conduct her marriage on the sly. Once married, the law and the police would have been helpless to undo it.
“On the day of my elder sister’s marriage, my friend managed to hear my mother’s planning. My mother was telling my aunties: don’t ask questions right now. We will make Roopa sit for the pheras at the last moment,” Roopa said.
Once alerted, she made a distress call to one of her friends who got in touch with the authorities and Madhu Sharma.
“The police came in the evening. They quizzed my parents and asked me whether I wanted to marry or not. I told the police that I don’t want to marry. And that’s how my marriage stopped at the last moment,” she said.
Her parents continue to remain hostile. It is due to the police’s timely intervention and the threat to initiate legal action that they have agreed not to conduct Roopa’s marriage for the next two-three years, giving her a chance to complete her studies.
It’s not only Roopa but her friend Pragati (name changed) who also staged a rock-solid rebellion in her home, and in the village.
The 17-year-old was expected to get married on June 29.
“I was made to see the groom in April itself. The date for the marriage was fixed. I had clearly told the boy that I want to pursue my higher studies and don’t wish to marry right now. However, he kept mum,” Pragati told this correspondent.
She was under tremendous pressure from her family and her mother.
“My mother would insist that I must marry right away. Her logic was that if I get married during the COVID-19 lockdown, the cost of marriage will be quite low,” she said.
Her father is a landless farmer and also works as a cook for events such as marriages, public gatherings and religious functions. COVID-19 halted all his earning opportunities. But the family thought that the cost of the marriage would considerably go down if they could manage to organise it during the pandemic.
“I had to prepare for my JEE exams. I wished to pursue my graduation in Computer Sciences, not marry,” Pragati said.
While the police ensured that her parents didn't force her into marrying someone, she continued her preparation for the entrance exam.
Pragati is now set to join NTTF in Bangalore to pursue her three-year diploma in Computer Sciences.
In each of these cases, the minor girls hailed from villages in West UP and were from economically weaker families. In most of the cases, the father was also a landless farmer.
Madhu Sharma, who works with the Child Protection Committee of Pardada Pardadi Educational Society (PPES), has been busy handling these distress calls during the pandemic.
Between 2008 and 2020, at the PPES, she stopped 15 child marriages of which 8 were reported during the past six months. Most of the cases were reported after June this year.
The daily wagers and people from lower economic groups have faced the worst brunt of the COVID-19 pandemic. The lockdown triggered by the virus has forced crores out of jobs across the country. Even the farmers were hit by the market slowdown and the complete disruption in the transport system.
Sharma said, in cases of child marriage distress calls, the surge in such cases is due to the lure of less cost of marriage in the pandemic era.
“Also, due to the COVID-19, the schools are closed. They suddenly realise that their girls are growing up and wish to “transfer the responsibility” on someone else. At times, when the girl’s answer back to their family members, their natural response is - it’s time for her to get married. As if the marriage is a punitive action,” Sharma said.
The 44-year-old resident of Anoopshahr has received threats from the family members and neighbours of the minor girls while dealing with the distress calls.
“Pragati’s father had threatened to shoot me. In Sangeeta’s case, had I visited her village, there would have been dire consequences. In some cases, the neighbours tried to intimidate me. However, they don’t have exposure to the education; they wouldn’t understand the grave mistake they are committing by supporting the child marriage,” Sharma said.
The PPES’s CPC member said that she tries to first convince the parents. In cases where there is no progress, she is forced to involve the CWC and the police.
But the cases where parents relent are the most favourable ones.
The mentality that augments child marriage
Preeti is 16 years old. Her parents succumbed to the rebellion put up by the Class 10 student.
“My father spoke to my Phupha ji (uncle) and slyly fixed my marriage. I got to know about it five days later. I first informed my friends. I managed to get my brother’s phone under the pretext of doing some school-related work and sought the help of my teachers,” Preeti said.
She stopped eating for eight days straight. Her mother, unable to bear the pain that Preeti was inflicting on herself, joined her protest. “She had not eaten anything for eight days. I couldn’t see her in that state anymore and hence I decided to stop eating as well. That’s when my husband relented.”
The family owns a mere 300 yards of land on which they have a one-room house. Under the shed of the kuccha house, five cattle – bought on loan – were kept. Preeti’s mother cooks in an open kitchen.
Preeti’s father Bir Singh, 48, identifies himself as a landless farmer and has taken a few bighas of land on lease for farming.
“I get 25 per cent of the total yield. I also work as a mason but due to coronavirus there is hardly any work,” Singh said.
When asked why he tried to conduct Preeti’s marriage at such a young age, he retorted, “What’s wrong in this? My elder daughter, Rachna was married when she was 17 years old. Recently, in my own village, a 12-year-old girl was married.”
But what about the laws, quizzed this correspondent. Singh replied, “Gaon mein kaun maane hai iss kanoon ko? (Who cares about child marriage laws in the village?)”
He then listed out how a daughter is a jimmedari (responsibility) and the family “izzat” (prestige) is attached to her.
“To keep our prestige and reputation intact, it is better to marry them as early as possible,” he said, sitting on the cot in the veranda.
While Singh’s elder son Kanhaiya has dropped out of school, Preeti wants to pursue higher studies. She is part of the National Cadet Corps (NCC) and dreams of joining the police force one day.
Singh did say that he is not against the idea of his daughter studying or working.
“If tomorrow, she becomes a policewoman or a teacher, I will be a proud man. I am not one of those who would stop my girls from studying or taking up jobs. But you have to understand my compulsions as well,” the resident of Bangar Torai village of Anoopshahr said.
Singh then explained why he thought of conducting her marriage during the pandemic. “I had spent roughly Rs 2 lakh on my elder daughter’s marriage. That loan is still standing. Even if I manage to plan a simple marriage for Preeti in normal days, it would cost me Rs 2.5 lakh. That too, only if the groom doesn’t insist on a motorbike. During the corona, the cost would come down by at least Rs 50-60,000.” He said that, due to the pandemic, the guest list would have been shorter and he would have saved money.
For people like Singh, who have been perpetually living under a cloud of debt, the opportunity of reducing the loan amount by Rs 50-60,000 sounds like a strong appeal.
Moreover, in rural landscapes, child marriage is yet to be seen as a criminal act. Rather, it continues to enjoy cultural approval.
As girls are not attending school, the idea of marrying off their minor daughters starts dominating the thought processes of those like Singh.
Preeti’s family has now come to the understanding that they will allow her to pursue her studies, at least for the time being.
What does the data say?
While Preeti sings joyfully in her own courtyard, many other girls across the country have not been as lucky as those whose rebellions succeeded.
India’s strict nationwide lockdown in the month of March brought the entire country to a halt. Economic activities – except essential ones – were stopped, and transportation was limited. The government placed restrictions on political and cultural functions, marriages and even public gatherings.
In the month of June, the Union Home Ministry began the phased unlocking of the country.
The effects of the pandemic, the lockdown and the subsequent unlocking reflect in the numbers of child marriage distress calls as well.
According to the CHILDLINE India database, child marriage interventions in the month of March went down by six per cent, in April by 70 per cent and in May by 44 per cent.
But as soon as the unlocking process began in the country, the child marriage distress calls witnessed a surge.
CHILDLINE India– the non governmental organisation which works on child rights and runs the 1098 helpline – data shows that in the month of June, intervention increased by 17 as compared to June 2019.
Child marriage interventions increased by 17 per cent in the month of July as compared to July 2019.
Notably, 90 percent of the complaints were related to minor girls.
Meanwhile, Union Minister of Women and Child Development Smriti Irani informed the Parliament on Thursday that there is no data to indicate a surge in child marriages during the lockdown.
The National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) is consulting with states on the laws related to child rights.
NCPCR chairperson Priyank Kangoongo told Asiaville, “We are starting the process of review of implementation of various (child rights and protection related) acts. It will take another two months to get the information from all states on child-related acts, including the child marriages.”