Chennai: On May 11, a 19-year-old truck driver from Alwar, Rajasthan tested positive for COVID-19. Upon tracing his contact history, the health department found that he had gotten married to a child bride on May 4, surrounded by 18 wedding guests.
In Bihar’s Maner, following the lockdown, five-year-old Pallavi’s mother Asha escaped along with her daughter from her physically abusive husband’s house and arrived at her parents’ home who started forcing her to remarry.
Within two weeks of the lockdown, Childline India witnessed a 50% surge in calls for protection from abuse and violence in children. The pandemic has set off a storm of child marriages, abuse and violation of children behind the closed doors in India.
Children getting married in the dead of the night
On March 30, Mira*, a 17-year-old girl, wept through her wedding ceremony with a 25-year-old man in Darbhanga district, Bihar. Her friend recorded the event secretly and sent it via the Bandhan Tod app to the NGO Gender Alliance, which works to stop child marriages in Bihar and Jharkhand.
A few weeks earlier, the influential family of the groom had sent a becholiya, the middleman for fixing the marriage. Mira and her mother opposed the alliance as they did not want her to abandon her studies and get married. But their families and relatives pressurised them into it, saying that the groom was a relative of the local village sarpanch.
The distraught mother went to the local police station to file an FIR against the proposed child marriage but was turned away by the officials.
Prashanti Tiwari, head of Gender Violence, an initiative of the UN Population Fund, recalled how the district police officials asked them to let go of the case as the girl was a year away from turning 18 and the groom’s family was influential. But the team took it up with the officials at Patna headquarters to get the FIR registered. In the following week, another 14-year-old was married to a 30-year-old in Supaul district.
In the initial days of the lockdown alone, there were 32 child marriages reported on the Bandhan Tod app from Bihar, of which nine were forced. The flurry of SOS messages on the app overwhelmed the team, and they had to disable it for three days to take stock of the situation and come up with a standard operating procedure for the cases awaiting them.
While the volunteers were able to reach out to slums in Patna, they were in the dark regarding the remote locations in Bihar and Jharkhand.
A report released by UNICEF in 2019, had stated that one in three of the world’s child brides lives in India and the states of Bihar, West Bengal and Rajasthan have a 40% prevalence of child marriages. In April this year, a UN report had warned that COVID-19 pandemic could lead to an extra 13 million child marriages over the next decade.
On May 12, the Childline India helpline received an anonymous tip about a 13-year- old, Class 8 student being forcibly married off by her parents to her 29-year-old relative in Krishnagiri district, Tamil Nadu.
Kriti Bharti, a child marriage activist who had risked death threats to prevent 1400 child marriages in Rajasthan, the state with the highest record in India said that the cases which come to limelight are the tip of the iceberg. In May 2019, around 300 child marriages were brought out despite the administration’s whole focus centred on their prevention.
Child marriage activists are finding it tough to crack the cases in the lockdown. Child couples are being forcibly married off in the dead of the night, with no witnesses, photographs and registration. Bharti said that parents had found novel ways to evade the law. Weddings occurred around the year and only the vidaai ceremony of the child bride took place during the auspicious Akshay Tritya.
Bharti recalled the recent case of a 15-year-old girl in Jodhpur who was married when she was a year old to a boy twice her age. She continued to stay with her parents. A few weeks into the lockdown, the boy’s family demanded that she be sent to their home. When the girl refused, citing the boy to be a drunkard, the infuriated family of the boy hit her so grievously that she had to be rushed to the hospital, which resulted in a police case.
A majority of weddings are also a result of the Mausar ceremony, a cultural practice in Rajasthan where the culmination of a 12-day ceremony in memory of the deceased is marked by the wedding of all children in the household irrespective of their age.
Bharti had managed to annul 40 child marriages so far and had ensured their rehabilitation with shelter, food, water, education and life skills.
Elsewhere in Andhra Pradesh, Shantha, running the MV Foundation, an NGO for marginalised children had managed to rescue four girls who had attempted to die by suicide even as one girl lost her life. All five girls had been forced to be child-brides.
The lockdown had dented efforts to eradicate child marriage for activists and authorities who called it as the invincible virus that had led to sexual assault, human rights violation and impacted healthcare and education for children.
Priyank Kanoongo, the chairperson of the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights, confirmed that child marriages were continuing to take place during the lockdown and that the authorities were able to intervene only based on calls made to the helpline.
COVID-19 has posed peculiar problems for Childline officials as they have to don multiple roles while helping the community and children with food and shelter in many cases. They also have to rope in healthcare workers if the caller is from a red zone. In addition to all these hurdles, they are not assured of transportation to their call centres and remote households, said Vikas Puthran, head of resource mobilisation, Childline India Foundation.
Silent victims of violence
Pallavi, a five-year-old from Maner in Patna grew up watching her father beat up her mother, 23-year-old Asha Devi everyday. A week into the lockdown, Asha managed to escape to her parents’ place along with Pallavi. It took a few weeks of staying there after which the distraught child saw her doting grandparents transform into emotional abusers, forcing Asha to remarry. Asha who used to survive doing odd jobs, has nowhere to go now.
While a woman is the face of domestic violence, the hidden victims are the children. The National Commission for Women saw a two-fold increase in domestic violence complaints – 116 to 257 calls from the first week of March to the last. What happens to the children in such households?
Swagata Raha, child protection specialist and legal researcher said that the child witnesses of domestic violence remain unseen, unheard and mute. Being the weakest in the family, they end up bearing the exasperation of the struggles their parents undergo. Locked up with domestic work and violent households as a result of alcoholic parents, young girls face an additional brunt.
Many children cannot make the SOS call. “We intervene only when children are directly affected by domestic violence. Child witnesses in domestic violence cases are dealt with as per the discretion of women helpline officials,” said Priyank.
Child captives of abuse
The lockdown is hell on earth, for children imprisoned with abusers in their homes. Childline had seen a 50% surge in demand for help – 92,000 SOS calls, requesting protection from abuse and violence in children, in the eleven days following the first lockdown. “Through the lockdown, Childline continued to receive calls reporting child sexual abuse,” said Vikas.
It could be a silver lining that children are devoid of exposure to many people. But what if the abuser lives under the same roof?
“Child sexual abuse is one of the most underreported crimes in the world, with only 12-18% of the cases being reported. Unless it becomes a violent assault, it is kept under wraps. It is tough to investigate as it occurs within a circle of trust and at present, with no connection to teachers, friends and community at large who could have offered some relief, the trauma children are undergoing is tremendous,” said Vidya Reddy, executive director of Tulir Centre for the Prevention and Healing of Child Sexual Abuse, Chennai, Tamil Nadu.
India leads the world, in the generation of online child sexual abuse material, according to a recent report by CyberTipline, of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in the US.
Lenin Raghuvanshi, convener of the People’s Vigilance Committee on Human Rights, which works for marginalised people at Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh said that predators are all over – online and offline.
“On one hand, there are parents who are unable to monitor the content their children access online, and on the other hand are children, unsafe around their own family. With social distancing, it is easier for the abuser to isolate the victim from the rest of the community. The number of abusers haven’t risen but the opportunities have shot up, as the abuser does not go to work and the victim doesn’t go to school. There is a need to protect children by identifying a responsible adult in each community and family who would help draw the line by keeping the abused, safe from the abuser,” he said.
“The basis of Juvenile Justice Act is that home is a safe place for children but we continue to intervene on complaints of children being violated,” said Priyank.
Reddy said it was high time to raise the alarm of abuse in COVID-19 quarantine centres. “Chaos and congregation of people has always been a potential breeding ground for abuse. During tsunami, many communities along the coast who never practised child marriage, got their daughters married because the relief camps were not safe. Quarantine centres are quite likely to pose that risk so we should sensitise everyone on this aspect,” she said.
Reach out to the unreachable
A pan-Indian study, conducted online by CRY (Child Relief and You) NGO on the COVID-19 lockdown impact on children, which was released on May 12 found that their psychological well-being and happiness has hit a low.
The pandemic has resulted in an emotional crisis. “Depression, anxiety, insecurity and frustration define their state of mind. Reaching out and counselling them, even if it is through digital mediums is a must,” said Javeed Ahmad, Manager, CHINAR International, a grassroots organisation from Srinagar, Jammu and Kashmir, which works for disadvantaged children.
“Post COVID-19 we are going to see a sharp rise in psychosomatic diseases among children. No one is there to notice the tell-tale signs whether it is eating disorders or mood swings of children,” said Dr Raj Bhandari, member, National Technical Board of Nutrition and Health at NITI Aayog.
“We can enable a healthy environment for children by helping their parents. Village heads, Child Welfare Committee, Childline and other child protective bodies should be mobilised with funds to help marginalised families,” said Rekha Sharma Sen, Faculty of Child Development, IGNOU.
“In a country where 40% of the total population comprises of children, just about 3% of the entire budget is allocated for them. It is obvious that they are not the priority when the country battles a pandemic. There should be a fixed set of guidelines for child protection mechanisms in coordination with grassroots workers to reach out to the most vulnerable,” said Puja Marwaha, CEO of CRY.
*Note: Names have been changed to protect their identities.
Nalini Ravichandran is an independent journalist who has worked with The New Indian Express and Mail Today and reported extensively on health, education, child rights, environment and socio-economic issues of the marginalised. She is an alumna of the Asian College of Journalism.