In April, the police stopped a vehicle in Odisha’s Boudh district for violating lockdown norms. Inside it was a 16-year-old girl along with some adults, including women.

Enquiries revealed the minor girl was a child bride who was being taken by her parents and relatives to her supposed in-laws’ house in a village in neighbouring Subarnapur district for marriage. The police presented them before the district child welfare committee where the parents were counselled to go back home and allow the child to continue with her studies.

A few weeks later in another district, Nayagarh, a daily wage labourer fixed his 16-year-old daughter’s marriage with a 26-year-old truck driver. Not interested in getting married, the girl informed the frontline workers of the non-profit group, Childline. After counseling, the father of the girl signed an undertaking saying he would not get his daughter married before she turned 18 – the official minimum age of marriage for women in India.

This year, child marriages appear to be on the rise in Odisha, a state which has done well to bring down their numbers in the past two decades.

The months-long lockdown starting March 24 to stem the spread of the coronavirus pandemic ended up devastating the livelihoods and income of the poor. The economy has not recovered to the pre-pandemic levels even after the lockdown was lifted. Besides economic hardship, the poor have been left feeling socially and psychologically vulnerable, which seems to have triggered a rush to get their children below 18, especially girls, married, say activists in Odisha.

Take the case of 17-year-old Ambika (name changed). Her father, the breadwinner of the family, was unwell and bed-ridden even before the pandemic. After the lockdown, the family decided it was best to marry her off.

Even the closure of schools because of Covid-19 has contributed to the marriage surge. Suchi (name changed), a Class 9 student, came back home from a tribal residential school after the lockdown was imposed. She fell in love with a 19-year-old neighbour. As they made plans to elope, their parents came to know and decided to solemnise their marriage.

Both the marriages were prevented after repeated counselling by officials and social workers.

What the data shows

While the factors pushing children into marriage have strengthened, the system to detect and prevent such early marriages has weakened.

In rural areas, frontline service providers like anganwadi workers, accredited social health activists and auxiliary nurse midwives usually keep a watch on cases of child marriage. However, the pandemic led to the same set of frontline workers being pulled into Covid-19 management.

“At least in the first four months after lockdown, many marriages went off our radar as preventing child marriage slid down our priority list,” said an anganwadi worker in Ganjam, one of the districts worst affected by Covid-19, requesting anonymity.

Government data on child marriages reflects the anganwadi worker’s concern.

Between January 1 and August 31, the authorities managed to detect and prevent 706 child marriages in 16 of 30 districts of Odisha, according to a presentation made in a meeting of the state level child marriage prevention committee.

Of these, 365 marriages – more than half – were scotched in three months between January 1 and March 24 – the day the national lockdown came into place. Since then, till August 31, the authorities were able to detect only 341 marriages in five months.

The drop in the number of thwarted child marriages is starker in vulnerable districts.

In Ganjam district, which has a sizable population of Scheduled Castes, of 116 prevented child marriages, the post-lockdown number was only 22. Similarly, in Koraput district, where Adivasi communities form the majority, of the 152 child marriages detected and prevented between January and August, only 52 were after the lockdown.

Adolescent girls and frontline workers take an oath to protect children and prevent child marriage in Odisha. Photo: Special arrangement

A setback to Odisha

A rise in child marriages is alarming, said social activists.

Not only do children lose their rights as well as opportunities for education, minor girls end up saddled with unpaid work in their marital homes, said Ghasiram Panda, the national manager for the non-profit Action Aid India’s Ending Child Marriage Programme

“Most importantly, they [minor girls] become vulnerable to marital rape and child sexual abuse,” said Panda. “According to Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, sex with a minor (below 18) may be construed as rape.”

Further, the girls become mothers at an early age, which imperils both their and their children’s health. Child marriages are a major factor responsible for India’s high maternal and infant mortality rates.

According to a UNICEF report in 2017, around 27% of the girls under the age of 18 – over 15 lakh – became child brides in India, which is the highest in the world. Just four states – Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and West Bengal – are responsible for nearly half the child marriages in the country, several reports suggest.

Odisha’s position among the states is somewhat in the middle.

The first round of the National Family Health Survey conducted in 1992-’93 found 45.5% of women aged 20-24 in Odisha were married before the age of 18. Two decades later, this had dropped to 21.3% in the fourth round of NFHS conducted in 2015-’16. In contrast, the child marriage rate in West Bengal was 40.7%, and in Bihar, it was 39.1%.

However, eight districts of Odisha – mostly inhibited by Adivasis and Dalits – have alarmingly high percentage of child marriage cases comparable to the worst performing states. According to NFHS-4, Malkangiri district had the highest child marriage percentage of 39.9%, followed by Nabarangpur with 37.9%, Mayurbhanj 35%, Koraput 34.7%, Rayagada 34.4%, Nayagarh 31.3%, Ganjam 29.8% and Keonjhar with 28.1%.

Obviously, these districts have been the core focus areas of Odisha’s anti-child marriage drive. Since 2017, the focus has been extended to another seven districts – Kandhamal, Boudh, Subarnapur, Deogarh, Dhenkanal, Balasore and Gajapati – having worse child marriage rates than the national average. The administrations of these 15 districts have been working in a coordinated effort along with Childline, UNICEF and Action Aid to prevent child marriages.

In the last few years, the collective efforts by the government, voluntary organisations and social activists have shown positive results creating considerable awareness among poor and marginalised people, and reducing child marriages to a large extent. In districts like Subarnapur and Rayagada, gram panchayats have declared some villages under them as “child marriage free”.

Successful awareness drives against child marriage have produced many youth campaigners, who themselves had been rescued from early marriage when they were minor girls. Bishnupriya Pradhan, 25, one such anti-child marriage campaigner, has been instrumental in stopping over 30 child marriages in Kandhamal, a predominantly tribal district, since 2018.

Many frontline workers, officials and social activists, however, admitted that Covid-19 has threatened to damage much of the good work done so far on child marriage prevention.

A banner in Nabarangpur district says "No to Child Marriage, Yes to School". Photo: Special arrangement

Renewed efforts

After the initial panic over the pandemic subsided, officials say they have been working on revitalising Odisha’s child protection mechanism.

The women and child development department has held training sessions and webinars to sensitive district officials to the challenge. On September 29, the department’s director Aravind Agrawal, who is also Odisha’s chief child marriage prohibition officer, wrote to all district collectors. He asked them to immediately form task forces with government officials, elected representatives, civil society organisations, academicians and prominent individuals as members. They would work on child marriage prevention and adolescent empowerment at district, block and gram panchayat levels.

“After the pandemic, the gram panchayat level child marriage protection committees have been made stronger,” said Agrawal. “WhatsApp complaint numbers have been shared with all stakeholders for faster information inflow.”

With schools closed, alternative forums for peer-sharing are being created through weekly meetings of adolescent girls at anganwadi centres to encourage them to share their experiences on vital issues like child health, education and vocation, he added.

But social activists say these efforts have not fully percolated down in several districts, due to Covid-19 fatigue of the workforce as well as continuing disruptions to transport and mobility.

Kailash Dandapat, who has played a major role in creating mass awareness against child marriage in Kandhamal, said that the government and social organisations must concentrate more than ever on the issue after the pandemic.

“Anti-child marriage drive is a top priority,” he said. “It is directly linked to the health as well as livelihood of poor and marginalised people.”

To prevent child marriages, said Dandapat, the government would need to come up with a holistic strategy. Not only would children, especially girls, have to be engaged in educational and vocational activities, the government would also have to focus on creating livelihood opportunities for the poor to restore some equilibrium in their lives.