Sometimes the call comes from a teenage girl.
She is pleading for help, “saying her parents are trying to get her married but she wants to stay in school,” says Vijay Muttur.
He’s the child protection officer in the town of Solapur in south-central India. After India went under a coronavirus lockdown in late March, his phone has been ringing off the hook. He’s hearing from girls under the age of 18, from village elders, from social activists and child-care workers.
The message from all these callers: Desperate parents, left without a livelihood in the middle of a pandemic, are rushing to marry off their underage daughters. (In India, it is illegal for a girl under age 18 to wed. The legal age for men to marry is 21.)
Data provided to NPR by the government in the western Indian state of Maharashtra, where Muttur’s district is located, shows that officials have stopped 208 child marriages in the 5 months from April through August. By comparison, authorities halted 116 child marriages in the 12 months between April 2019 and March 2020.
Nationwide data is not available yet. But there are concerns throughout India – and indeed around the world – that the pandemic is bringing an increase in child marriage.
And the numbers are already high: An estimated 1.5 million underage girls in India and 12 million underage girls worldwide get married each year, according to the United Nations, which defines child marriage as “both formal marriages and informal unions in which a girl or boy lives with a partner as if married before the age of 18.” The number is based on household surveys.
And South Asia is home to the largest number of child brides, says UNICEF. Of 650 million women and girls in the world who were married before their 18th birthday, 285 million or more than 40% are in South Asia.
The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) says coronavirus restrictions may delay interventions against child marriage and cause a long-lasting economic downturn that will push more families into poverty, which is a key driver of child marriage.
So how do you stop a child marriage from taking place during a pandemic?
Muttur says he often has to use harsh language to convince parents of child brides that what they’re doing is wrong.
“I tell them, ‘by doing this, you are giving someone the permission to rape your daughter’,” Muttur says.
Like Muttur, Rolee Singh is getting lots of reports of child marriage in the offing. She lives in Varanasi, where she serves as program director of the nonprofit Dr. Shambhunath Singh Research Foundation.
“The first tipoff I got was about a 14-year-old girl being married to a 30-year-old man,” says Singh. She alerted the police and showed up with them at the temple where the wedding was taking place. She explained to the family that what they were doing was wrong and unlawful.
“I also told them that if they delay their daughter’s marriage till she turned 18, they would receive financial assistance as part of a government policy,” says Singh. Eventually, the family was convinced and the wedding was stopped.
During the pandemic, Singh says she has halted 5 marriages mid-ceremony and convinced almost two dozen families to call off the marriage before the wedding date.
In India, if an adult man (over age 21) marries an underage bride, he and the girl’s parents or guardians — along with anyone who officiates the marriage — are in violation of the law. If convicted, they can be sentenced to up to two years in prison or asked to pay a fine of more than $1,300, or both.
According to data compiled by the National Crime Records Bureau, 964 people were arrested under the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act last year and 525 cases of child marriage were reported.
But actual figures are hard to tally. A 2018 report by the Centre for Law and Policy Research in Bengaluru and the Center for Reproductive Rights in New York outlines several challenges in the implementation of the law including stigma faced by child brides whose marriage was halted and a low conviction rate for those accused. Muttur says a lot of child marriages are probably taking place unnoticed.
Before the pandemic, the child marriage cases that Muttur encountered typically involved 16 or 17-year-olds. Now he’s seeing brides as young as 12, he says.
“These are families that survive on their day’s earnings but during the pandemic, they’ve got no work,” says Muttur. “Their financial situation is dire.”
India imposed an early and stringent lockdown which severely hurt its economy and was especially difficult for poor day laborers. Nearly 100 million of them lost their jobs and dozens died while trying to walk back to their native villages. India now has more than 8 million reported coronavirus cases, the second-highest in the world after the United States.
Before the pandemic, under the government’s mid-day meal scheme, students from lower-income families would get one meal at their school for free. But with schools closed, the meals have stopped and parents are scrambling to feed their kids. They’re also worried about the virus, which is now spreading in rural areas where health-care facilities are scarce.
“They think, ‘If I die, what will happen to my family?’ So they think it’s better to get the girl married now. They feel like it’s their duty,” says Muttur. “They also think authorities are so busy with the coronavirus, that they can get away with this.”
But why would a man’s family want to assume the additional financial burden of his wife?
One motive could be India’s skewed sex ratio — there are more men than women. “To find brides in the face of this sex ratio imbalance, some traditional-marriage-aged men must reach into younger female cohorts,” note researchers Peter Leeson and Paola Suarez in their 2017 paper on child brides in India.
Singh says often a man seeking a child bride is a widower or someone who can’t find a bride his own age – perhaps because he has special medical needs. Such a man, who would normally have a hard time looking for a bride, finds it easier to get one during a pandemic because parents of girls are eager to marry them off, says Singh.
The families of boys may be willing to bear the additional financial burden, even in a pandemic, because the alternative would be a son who remains unmarried.
One way to keep child marriages in check during the pandemic is to recognize child protection workers as essential workers, says Gabrielle Szabo, senior gender equality adviser at Save the Children in London.
“[To] make sure they have access to protective equipment to continue to do that work safely,” Szabo says.
Szabo also notes that child marriages spike during crises because of the common belief that marrying a girl to a man protects her from violence from other men in the community.
Singh witnessed that firsthand when her town saw an influx of men left unemployed because of the lockdown.
“Young men started behaving indecently, roaming around, catcalling girls or harassing them,” says Singh. “So families were feeling scared and hurried to get their daughters married.”
Those kinds of concerns convinced 40-year-old Dattatray Shankar Sutar that a marriage should be arranged for his youngest niece, Sau Sutar, 17. Her father died in February. When schools closed due to the pandemic, Sau was left at home all day while her mother worked in the fields to earn money to feed Sau and her 10-year-old brother.
So Sutar and other relatives arranged Sau’s marriage to a man in his 20s.
“We thought we should get her married for her own safety,” says the uncle.
Community representatives alerted authorities, who intervened and convinced the family to cancel the marriage. The family signed a statement promising not to marry off Sau married before she turns 18.
“I was relieved when the marriage was called off,” says the teenager. “I always felt strange about it but I thought there was no other option.”
She wants to study humanities and will start 11th grade whenever her school reopens.