During the Monsoon Session of the parliament in September 2020, Rajya Sabha MP Aman Patnaik raised a question enquiring whether the government had taken cognisance of the rising number of child marriage cases during the lockdown period.
In response, Smriti Irani, the Union Minister of Women and Child Development, stated:
“As per the information received from National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), there is no data to indicate rising number of child marriage cases during the lockdown period.”
However, an RTI application by this author to the Union Ministry of Women and Child Development revealed that during the lockdown period (between the months of June to October) there had been an increase of more than 33% in the number of child marriages as compared to 2019. The month of August alone witnessed an increase of more than 88%.
The RTI application which was filed before the Ministry had four questions:
- The state-wise number of complaints/reports/information received by the Ministry of Women and Child Development both directly and indirectly on incidents of child marriages each month from April 1, 2020 to October 31, 2020.
- The state-wise number of complaints/reports/information received by the Ministry of Women and Child Development both directly and indirectly on incidents of child marriages each month from April 1, 2019 to October 31, 2019.
- Information provided to the Union minister Smriti Irani between April 1, 2020 to September 17, 2020 regarding such complaints/reports/information received by the Ministry of Women and Child Development either directly or indirectly on incidents of child marriages.
- Information as to the non-utilisation of data of the complaints/reports/information received by the Ministry of Women and Child Development both directly and indirectly on incidents of child marriages between April 1, 2020 to September 17, 2020 to answer the Rajya Sabha Un-Starred Question No.635, Question (a), answered on September 17, 2020.
The Ministry initially stated that the information sought “is not available in this Section” and transferred the first three questions to the NCRB. Interestingly, the third question specifically pertained to Irani and the Ministry however, the Ministry transferred it to the NCRB. To the fourth question, the ministry stated it is “not related with this (Child Welfare) Section”.
Upon appeal, the request was forwarded to the CHILDLINE India Foundation (CIF) which is the nodal agency of the Union Ministry of Women and Child Development responsible for the setting up, managing and monitoring CHILDLINE 1098 services all over the country.
More importantly, CIF is also responsible for the research and documentation of child rights issues including that of child marriages across the country.
The RTI response from CIF showed an increase in the number of child marriage cases that have been reported during the months of the lockdown.
The first two months of the lockdown show a dip in the number of cases owing to the strictness of the unplanned lockdown. Soon thereafter, the numbers shot up when the restrictions were relaxed and continued to remain higher than the cases reported the previous year. The CHILDLINE Foundation itself had given out reports on the increased number of child marriage cases during the lockdown, yet the Union Government chose to inexplicably not refer to this vital piece of information while providing its answer to the parliamentary question as to “whether the government has taken cognisance of the rising number of child marriage cases…”.
This strikes as especially evasive when we remember that in June 2020 it was reported by ANI, Times of India and others that the Ministry said it intervened to stop 5,584 child marriages,based on the information provided by Childline 1098.
Additionally, the Ministry had during the Monsoon Session itself relied on the CIF to state “as reported by Childline India Foundation (CIF), 3941 calls have been received by CIF regarding child sexual cases from 1st March, 2020 to 15th September,2020.”
This is indicative of how the Ministry is aware of the category-wise data the CIF possesses, even from the lockdown period.
‘There is no data’
Interestingly, even the manner in which the Ministry replied to the Parliamentary Question had a deceptive stain to it, stating that “as per the information received from National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), there is no data to indicate rising number of child marriage cases during the lockdown period.”
A cursory reading of the response would lead one to believe that the NCRB “has the data” on the number of child marriage cases during the lockdown but the same does not indicate an increase. However, upon a similar RTI query by this author to the NCRB, the response given was that the NCRB does not have the data collected during the period of the lockdown and the same is hence not available.
On the other hand, it could certainly be argued that the phrasing means that there is “no data at all”.
However, in all instances where the Centre did not possess data, ministries have been direct in stating it. For instance, the same Ministry stated that “it does not maintain this data” in response to a parliamentary question enquiring on the number of women who had left workforces during the lockdown. Similar direct responses to the non-possession of data have been given by other Ministries as well.
Such difference in the language used by the Ministry of Women and Child Development reflects the misleading nature of the response to the question pertaining to the increase in child marriages. If the Ministry did not have any data regarding the increase in the number of child marriages during the lockdown, it could have directly stated the same rather than responding vaguely, ostensibly in order to divert any criticism against it.
Furthermore, the RTI application sought information as to whether the Minister, Smriti Irani, was informed of the increasing number of child marriages during the lockdown period and as to why the data which the Ministry itself had on the increasing number of cases was not used to respond to the question in parliament. To both of these questions, the Ministry had no information to provide. No clarification was provided by the Ministry as to why it chose to conceal the data it possessed.
Irani herself had tweeted back in April about the interventions CIF had made in response to over 18,200 calls and how it prevented 898 child marriages.
Childline 1098 – @MinistryWCD’s emergency helpline for children prevented 898 child marriages during lockdown & made necessary interventions in response to over 18,200 calls.
If you know of any child in distress, please reach out to us on Childline 1098. pic.twitter.com/TWu2DdIqmV
— Smriti Z Irani (@smritiirani) April 29, 2020
As such, it is clear that the Ministry as well as Irani herself were very well aware of the fact that the Ministry through its nodal agency had in its possession, data regarding the increasing number of child marriages during the lockdown period in the country from April till October.
A similar question was also posed in parliament by Karti P. Chidambaram during the Monsoon Session of the Lok Sabha enquiring “whether a spike in the number of cases of child marriage due to the pandemic crisis has been reported.” However, the Ministry failed to directly respond to the question raised. Even, as recently as March 10, 2021, the Ministry gave a similar response to a question in the parliament on the same issue.
The recently published NFHS (National Family Health Survey) Factsheet shows a high prevalence of child marriages in different parts of the country. The data shows that in some states, more than 40% of the female population was married before they turned 18.
UNICEF statistics show that over 12 million girls worldwide are married off in their childhood every year with India ranking fourth among eight South Asian countries after Bangladesh, Nepal and Afghanistan. The recent report of the UNICEF on the impact of COVID-19 on child marriages states that India is among the five countries that account for half of the child marriages in the world. One of the Sustainable Development Goals adopted by India as a member of the United Nations was to eliminate the practice of child marriage by 2030.
Mathew Thomas is a final year student at Symbiosis Law School, Noida.