Updated: Nov 15, 2021
Living through the Covid-19 outbreak we are all acutely aware of the fears associated with it. However, this pandemic catalysed a different fear for many teenage girls in rural India. According to Unicef, 650 million females are married before their 18th birthday around the world and more than 40% are from South Asian countries. Just five states, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh, out of India’s 28, are home to over half of all child brides in India. The legal minimum age for marriage is 18 for females and 21 for males in India. However, accounting for a third of the global total, there are approximately 1.5 million child marriages in the country each year. Whatever the law may state, it does not reflect the reality.
Praised for its close knit and supporting culture, marriage is a fundamental tenet in Indian families and is one to be admired. However, it is the same sense of solidarity and accountability for each member of the family that can lead to child marriage. Held as a common belief in India, it is considered a parental duty to find their daughter a suitor in adequate time, taking into consideration her fertile lifespan. This consideration does not, however, bring into account the socioeconomic dilemmas saturating Indian villages, which, to the demise of many young girls, accelerates their propulsion into the marital sphere. For example, poor sanitation and preventable diseases account for approximately 2.4 million deaths every year, meaning that even parents often succumb to diseases such as tuberculosis. This generates a chain reaction of financial insecurities and incessant poverty for family members left behind. So, in a twisted attempt to save their children from being orphaned, parents hurry to marry their offspring in a way that fulfils their ‘duty’ as a parent. What is less understood is that in an attempt to save their daughter from financial perils they are subjecting her to a lifetime of profound personal struggles and severely diminished human rights. According to UNICEF, girls married before the age of 15 are more likely to die of complications during pregnancy and childbirth, as well as 50% more likely to have experienced physical or sexual violence from an intimate partner - suggesting that this safe haven isn’t safe after all.
This problem has been exacerbated by concerns over public safety. With the return of young men back to the small towns during lockdown, parents have been left feeling concerned about the vulnerability of their daughter’s physical safety. Police officials shuffle through roughly 30,000 rape cases a year - not including those that go unreported. In these anxiety ridden situations, child marriages are viewed by parents as an opportunity to gift their children access to greater physical wellbeing. Marrying a teenager to a man potentially twice her age does not seem immoral if it protects her from the violence of other men in the community, despite the possibility that she is still likely to experience domestic abuse within her marriage. It is important to reflect on the harrowing choice that some families in India are faced with; the potential abuse of one man over the abuse of many men.
Citizens in first world countries perceive these instances of underage marriages unutterable and unscrupulous, but what our privileged upbringings deny us is the capability to process that this alternative appears much better than a lifetime of abuse, starvation and economic doom. Indian parents do not agree to manifest their daughters as child brides because they want to, but because they feel they have no other option. The complications of underage marriage are preferable to the barbarism of social injustice that is otherwise written in the stars for poverty-stricken women.
On the back of this, the Covid-19 pandemic has prompted a surge in the number of illegal child marriages. Being home to the second highest number of cases, India’s early but destructive lockdown resulted in a catastrophic effect on the economy and the livelihood of its citizens, leaving almost 100 million unemployed. With the virus penetrating the already malnourished Indian slums, many families have lost stable incomes, pushing them further into a blackhole of poverty. Schools, which have played a crucial role in keeping girls safe, were forced to shut, swelling the parental burden. For example, the mid day meal scheme permitted students from lower income backgrounds to receive one meal a day at school. However, during lockdown this forced already struggling families to scramble to provide their children with an additional meal. Due to the fact that cultural norms assign lower value to women, Indian nationals perceive no other alternative than to marry their daughter off, regardless of being beneath the legal age. This is done in an endeavour to receive a dowry which would alleviate additional financial stresses’. In this way, child marriages, an expression of gender inequality, thrived during the pandemic by further devaluing and dehumanising young girls as a commodified and transferable good, capable of generating economic returns.
This is reinforced by the fact that weddings are viewed as elaborate and expensive affairs, celebrating the couple's religion and culture. With Covid restrictions limiting the size of weddings, parents who received marriage proposals were keen to accept and conduct them undercover. According to the assistant commissioner for Women and Child Welfare in the state of Maharashtra, "It was easier, cheaper and they could get away with inviting very few people." Wedding a younger girl is considered financially efficient as her wrists are smaller, her ankles are smaller and her body is tinier, meaning it costs less to buy jewellery and marital gowns - an essential for Indian brides.
Child marriages are presented in media as a social norm, deeply ingrained into a society constructed on institutional discrimination and gender inequality, highlighting the minimal worth granted to females. However, the future is lined with hope. According to the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act 2006 every district should have a child protection officer to enforce the legal marriage age for men and women. This is positively compounded by the Rajasthani government recently appointing greater police officials in the 33 districts within its state to keep in check child marriages. Potentially, the synergy and continued collaboration between the government and social agencies will lead to more impactful shift to overcome child marriage; an institution which currently stand as a hurdle to the rights of women. One of the most significant developments has been from UNICEF who have begun their gradual shift from small level interventions to large scale district models. These projects, working on teenage empowerment, build on existing government programmes and send a message across the country: Child marriages end childhood.