The COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdown have proved to be new drivers of child marriages in rural Madhya Pradesh with several reports of such ceremonies from different parts of the State during the ongoing marriage season.
“I am a widow and I don’t have any kind of social security. Marriage is the only safe option for my daughters,” said Bijja Bai Jatav [name changed], sitting beside a heap of mattresses and quilts piled up on a wooden bed, in front of her house in Rujankhedi village in Nasrullaganj teshsil of Sehore district.
Madhya Pradesh recorded 46 child marriages between November 2019 and March 2020, a figure that that jumped to 117 in just three months of the lockdown from April to June 2020, data provided by ChildLine India, an NGO, said.
According to ChildLine India, across India 5,214 child marriages were reported in the first four months of lockdown between March to June.
Back in Rujankhedi, Ms. Jatav who was left without sources of livelihood during the prolonged lockdown, is worried about the safety of her daughters and is convinced marrying her minor daughter would ensure the child’s wellbeing.
The agricultural fields are not safe for teenage girls and women, Ms. Jatav says. “They [her daughters] cannot come with me to the fields where I work. We are poor and belong to a lower caste. Tell me what other option I have with to protect my daughters?” asked a despairing Ms. Jatav.
After finding a groom for her eldest daughter, she began the search for a suitable groom for her youngest daughter. On finding a suitable match, she hurriedly decided to marry both daughters at the same ceremony. The economics of a joint wedding made sense.
However, the district administration stepped in and stopped the December 9 ceremony.
Marriage of the Jatav girls was not the only child marriage stopped in the Budhni Assembly constituency represented by Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan. On December 8, the local administration stopped the marriage of a minor boy in Dabri village of the same constituency.
“Due to our timely intervention, the marriage of a minor girl and boy was stopped,” Girish Chouhan, Project Officer, Integrated Child Development Project, Nasrullaganj, Sehore district told The Hindu.
Despite the official vigilance, child marriages remain a challenge in Madhya Pradesh. In the past few days, the local administration managed to stop the marriage of two minor girls in Morena and Ujjain and of a boy in Raisen district of the State.
On Friday, timely intervention by a team led by Krishna Nigam, Child Development Project Officer of Morena stopped the marriage of a 14-year old girl of Pardu Ka Pura village in Porsa tehsil.
In another incident, on December 8, Yogendra Raj, Child Development Project Officer of Raisen district’s stepped in to stop the marriage of a minor scheduled for December 13.
“The bride was under 18. Her marriage was scheduled to take place on December 13 at Rampur Tola a village that comes under the Sanchi block of the Raisen district,” she said. The family is said to have now agreed to postpone the marriages till the girls turned 18.
In Ujjain district, a team led by distirct Child Development Project Officer Sabbir Ahmed S managed to stop the marriage of a minor girl scheduled for December 7 at Ghattia village.
Unicef has said that in Madhya Pradesh where child marriages are a constant challenge, economic pressures due to the pandemic has pushed poor parents to marry off girls early.
“COVID-19, and the consequent lockdown had many challenges, particularly for children, and more so for those from vulnerable families. With no schools, safety of children, particularly girls, was a major reason for increase in violence against children and child marriages. Child marriage is still a challenge in the State. Increased economic pressures due to the pandemic has pushed parents to marry off girls early,” Lolichen P.J., Child Protection Specialist, UNICEF, Madhya Pradesh said.