A dangerous fallout of the nation-wide lockdown was the effect it had on children. While education and lack of socialisation are the most obvious issues, problems such as child marriage, abuse and lack of nutrition are showing disturbing trends and causing concern among the non-government organisations (NGO) that work in these areas.
Aangan, a Mumbai-based NGO that works on child protection and related issues, recently prevented 211 cases of child marriage across five States through timely intervention via a strong women’s network. Aangan’s report, titled “Averting Child Marriage during COVID-19”, which was recently released, says: “The COVID-19 pandemic has had a devastating impact on socio-economically disadvantaged children in India. The public health crisis and its attendant economic shocks have not only exacerbated the main drivers of child marriage, labour, and trafficking, but have also forced civil society and humanitarian organisations to rethink their approach towards child protection.”
Roshni Chakraborty, one of the researchers and authors of the report told Frontline : “The response to the issue is important to note. From women volunteers to village leaders, the police, the victims themselves and even people who organise such weddings, they all seemed aware and willing to intervene to stop these arrangements. However, the pandemic is having a terrible effect on children as schools are shut, mid-day meals have been stopped and so they become a burden on families. Fortunately, Aangan’s team are able to coordinate with field volunteers in spite of the lockdown and manage intervention.”
Given that decades of aggressive campaigning against child marriage has resulted in a lowering in numbers across the country, it is important to understand why rights activists and social workers are concerned about this issue. Aangan’s study says that historically, emergencies such as natural disasters and conflicts have long been linked to child marriage as a negative coping mechanism. COVID-19 is no exception. Save the Children, another NGO, estimates a dramatic surge in child marriages and adolescent pregnancies in the next five years because of the pandemic.
According to the report, during the first few months of the lockdown, activists warned of increased child marriages, linking it to the financial insecurity caused by the loss of livelihoods, loss of access to many social security schemes, increasing food insecurity and the closure of schools. Lower dowry demands and lower marriage expenses because of the lockdown further incentivised families who were already considering child marriage as a coping strategy.
During the period from April 2020 to December 2020, Aangan team members along with their field associates prevented 173 girls and two boys from getting married in the Patna region of Bihar; 22 girls and three boys in Bharatpur, Rajasthan; four girls and one boy in North 24 Parganas, West Bengal; two girls in Pakur, Jharkhand, and one girl in Mumbai, Maharashtra. The report says 65 per cent of the interventions took place at the marriage decision-making stage, 29 per cent took place at the proposal phase, five per cent in the planning phase and one per cent after wedding.
The report says: “Aangan’s volunteers found that strategies of negotiation and dialogue were far more likely to work when the wedding was yet to occur. Because of the trust they had built through their prior work in the community, Aangan’s women volunteers were able to leverage their position to negotiate with families, help them seek other options for financial security and help girls exercise agency in preventing their own marriage. We found that no success came easy and there was no single strategy—local conditions, the ability to rally community members and the specifics of each case drove the responses in different directions.”
Moving forward, the team suggests a four-pronged strategy to combat the issue. Investment in local volunteers; building social capital; negotiations and dialogue; and creative engagement with non-traditional stakeholders. Roshni Chakraborty says that the key to Aangan’s success was the leadership of local women volunteers. The organisation has over 9,000 volunteers on the field who, among other things, are trained in child protection. When the lockdown started, they were able to use these networks to gather information.
Through their field and social network, Aangan volunteers were able to receive information about impending marriages quickly and from varied sources. The report says: “Strikingly, in over 93 per cent of cases, the volunteers were warned of impending marriages through informal and indirect reports by community members. Out of this, 17 per cent of the warnings came from relatives and neighbours, and 69 per cent came from peer women from ‘whisper circles’.” A novel and effective concept, in “whisper circles”, when women who are in touch with volunteers get information about an impending child marriage, they immediately flag the volunteer for intervention.
The report says dialogue with decision makers are also key to the process. In 89 per cent of cases, women volunteers adopted negotiation with the girls’ families as the primary strategy. Says the report: “Since most parents were marrying their children off due to socioeconomic pressures, volunteers worked with them to secure rations, loans, and other benefits in exchange for promises to halt or delay the marriage. Importantly, in seven powerful cases, the girls themselves led successful negotiations with their parents in order to avert their own and their siblings’ marriages.”
As a fourth strategy, the report says Aangan volunteers focussed heavily on providing alternative sources of income for the sustenance for families, given that the force of financial insecurity is a driving factor in child marriage. In Bihar, volunteers worked with Jeevika self-help groups (SHGs) to provide loan assistance (between Rs. 5,000 to Rs. 25,000) to start small home-run businesses such as tailoring, stitching masks and setting up a shop. Jeevika helped connect the women in the family with other temporary alternative livelihood opportunities. Strikingly, over 53 per cent cases of child marriages that were stopped in Patna were done with the support of Jeevika SHGs.
A few testimonies from the study are: In Pakur, Jharkhand, the parents of a little girl called Jyoti were told about a case in an adjacent village where police had intervened and arrested both the parents and the in-laws of the bride. Jyoti’s parents heeded the warning, realising that the issue would not be ignored by officials and cancelled the marriage.
Jaya and Rani Shukla were part of the Super Smart Shakti networks (girl safety networks run by women volunteers trained by Aangan). When their marriage came up before the legal age, the sisters appealed to the girls social network for help. And there is the case of Payal, who fought her own battles. She told her mother it was illegal and she would not allow them to marry her. Payal, empowered by the girl network, prevented her own and her siblings’ marriages by maintaining a strong stand. Not a small feat in a highly patriarchal community.