Child marriages in Maharashtra soar during lockdown
By Mohua Das
When Mitali Sathe stepped out of her home in Latur decked in a yellow sari, the mehendi and green glass bangles gave her away. A member of an adolescent girls’ protection group spotted the 15-year-old before her marriage to a man four decades her senior.
After her elder sister’s death, Mitali was the sacrificial bride on offer to the 50-year-old widower: he needed her to care for the children. With their earnings as seasonal labourers cut off and the daughter out of school due to the pandemic, Mitali’s parents saw this as a way out. However, timely intervention halted the wedding and led to the suitor’s arrest.
The phenomenon of increased child marriages is a classic example of the many ways in which prolonged paralysis of all economic activity can have serious effects on society’s well-being. Devastation of lives is caused not only by death but by these ways too. In what is a saving grace, many of these cases have been blocked by alert activists, officials and state-backed advocacy groups, but while the government machinery continues its fight against the pandemic, it must also now get back to paying close attention to such aspects of community life which can take the state and, broadly, Indian society backward.
At least 92,203 interventions were made by Childline-a nodal government agency for children in distress -between May and July. Of these, 5,584 were related to child marriage.
State saw over 200 child marriage cases in March-June: Activist
In Mitali’s case, she was produced before the child welfare committee and counselled while her parents were made to sign a declaration that they would refrain from the illegal act of getting their underage daughter married. But Mitali’s escape from the scourge of “bal-vivaah” or child marriage was an exception. During the pandemic, a large number of underage girls have been coerced straight from childhood into marriage.
With the protective shield of a school gone, job loss rampant among daily wagers and reduced surveillance of district machinery currently focused on Covid-19 management, many families in rural areas are stealthily marrying their minor daughters off as a survival strategy — to reduce the number of children to support and the chance to make the affair less expensive and concealed.
“More than 200 cases of child marriage have been reported between March and June out of which 90 per cent were averted with help of authorities and vigilant locals,” says child rights activist Santosh Shinde, former member of Maharashtra’s State Commission for Protection of Child Rights. “Marathwada, Latur and Osmanabad continue to be the source for child brides while sugarcane-producing districts like Kolhapur, Solapur, Satara and Sangli are destinations.”
“Many parents feel the lockdown is a good opportunity to get their daughters married at a lower cost. Instead of feeding over 200 guests and running up a debt of about Rs 2 lakh, they can get everything done for Rs 20,000,” says Sandhya Rani, 16, who heads the Savitribai Phule adolescent group in Latur where 16 child marriages have been reported between April and June compared to 19 cases over the previous nine months.
A key driver has been the respite from heavy dowry. “Higher caste communities like Maratha, Yedam and Lingayat that would demand close to Rs 5 lakh from the bride’s family are ready to settle for Rs 1 lakh while dowry of Rs 1 lakh for daily wagers has come down to Rs 20,000. People need additional helping hands at home or to labour,” she says.
“It feels like we’ve gone back ten years in terms of progress that we had made,” rues Jayvant Jangapalle, coordinator for Kala Pandhari Magaswargiya and Adivasi Gramin Vikas Sanstha, a project partner of Child Rights and You (CRY) in the Latur and Nanded districts of Maharashtra. “After the launch of Integrated Child Protection Scheme in 2010, adolescent girl groups were activated which helped us monitor and nip child marriages in the area, members of the Village Child Protection Committee upheld basic rights and we were able to keep girls in school or in seasonal hostels to stem the practice of migrant parents taking along their daughters and marrying them off,” says Jangapalle.
In some cases, girls themselves have put a stop to their own marriage. In the Pangaon village of Latur, Muskaan Syed, 16 refused to marry when her parents received a proposal and promptly fixed a date. “They did not ask me nor tell me who I was marrying. Because I was part of an adolescent girls group, I knew the implications and argued with my parents until they agreed to call it off,” she says.
Unfortunately the lockdown has upended girl group meetings or home visits that were therapeutic as much as empowering. “We learnt how to conduct ourselves confidently and discuss issues that we couldn’t with our parents. We have no opportunity to talk about our challenges or find solutions now,” says Meenal Rathod, 15 from Latur adding that almost every household in her village has been discussing marriage.
The approaching sugarcane harvesting season starting September when the banjara community migrates to districts across western Maharashtra for six months, activists fear, will render girls more vulnerable to early marriage. “Due to koyta padhati (sickle system) of hiring couples; parents prefer to marry off boys so that he and his bride can rake in an income which they can’t as a single cane cutter,” says Raju Sathe, a community organiser for CRY in Marathwada’s Parbhani district that has reported 16 cases between March and June as opposed to their past average of seven cases in a year.
With the criminality in child marriages yet to sink in, the pandemic has exposed the kind of work that still remains to be done. As a start, CRY along with NGO Vidhayak Bharti released a handbook last month on roles and responsibilities of Bal Sanrakshan Samitis and ways to tackle child protection at the community level.
Courtesy : TNN