During the Covid-19 lockdown in 2020, the parents of Jaya Shukla*, a 16-year-old girl in Naubatpur in Patna district, received a proposal for her marriage.

The prospective groom’s family, in dire need of money, wanted only Rs 30,000 – much less than the typical dowry demand. With lockdown restrictions in place to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, the Shuklas would not have to host a large number of wedding guests either, evading the need to borrow up to Rs 60,000 from moneylenders at 15% interest.

Due to these perceived savings, they decided to get both Jaya and her 15-year-old sister Rani, who received a proposal shortly after Jaya, married in the same ceremony.

“We do not want to miss such a good proposal in such trying times,” said their mother, Varsha.

The Shuklas are daily-wage agricultural labourers who lost all work during the lockdown. Even now, their work and income are not at pre-pandemic levels. Like many parents, the Shuklas believed marriage would increase their daughters’ well-being and provide the security that they were unable to provide.

Jaya realised the urgency of the situation and confided in a trusted elder in the basti, Sonu. Sonu, a volunteer with an NGO called Aangan, understood the challenges the family was facing. The next day, she returned with four women from the neighbourhood to negotiate with the family.

They used their knowledge of state schemes and connections with local officials to help the family apply for ration cards, register for Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme and arrange a scholarship for Jaya to continue her education.

One woman who worked with a self-help group helped Jaya’s mother Varsha to get a loan of Rs 5,000 to restart her agricultural work. It was this display of community solidarity that ultimately halted the marriages of Jaya and Rani.

Pandemic effect

The Shuklas are not the only marginalised family that considered marrying off their underage girls during the pandemic. The financial insecurity caused by the Covid-19 slowdown will push an additional one crore girls into child marriage within the decade, according to United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund.

In a study of informal workers during Covid-19 by the NGO Actionaid, 63% of respondents said they were unable to eat two meals a day.

The Right to Education Forum estimates that 37% of girls from disadvantaged households are unlikely to ever return to school. Photo credit: Prashant Waydande/Reuters

Compounding this vulnerability is the lack of social protection and the inability to access government schemes. The Shuklas did not have ration cards or bank accounts, making them dependent on help from neighbours and NGOs. Schools, which, through the mid-day meal programme, have acted as safety nets and safe spaces for girls, closed in March 2020. A year later, they are yet to reopen in most parts of the country.

The Right to Education Forum estimates that 37% of girls from disadvantaged households are unlikely to ever return to school. Because of these socio-economic pressures, activists are witnessing a dramatic increase in child marriage and trafficking. Jaya and Rani’s case was, unfortunately, not unique.

How communities stepped up

What was unique to the Covid-induced child protection crisis, however, was the inability of NGOs to reach families in time because of restrictions on movement. Thus, it fell to local communities to take charge and respond. That is exactly what women in Patna did. A study by Aangan found that over 178 child marriages were successfully averted in Patna during the lockdown through community efforts.

Patna provides a powerful case study in how to rethink child protection, turning the spotlight from international humanitarian organisations and individual celebrity activism towards those in the community who stepped up to protect their own children.

In Naubatpur, women led by Aangan volunteers set up “whisper circles” – networks of women who were on the lookout for child marriages and domestic violence. When they heard of impending marriages, they would inform each other, take action and seek help from officials.

The Aangan study found that in 69% of cases, its volunteers were warned of impending marriages by women from their whisper circles. An additional 17% came from relatives and neighbours of the children – meaning that in over 93% of cases, it was the community itself that acted as an early warning system.

Many people who would not be considered traditional stakeholders in child protection also provided unique solutions. In their door-to-door visits, government-appointed workers like Aangwadi sevikas and ASHA workers informally extended their roles and kept an eye out for signs of early marriage such as dowry items being arranged at home or visits by guests and extended family.

Self-help groups set up under Bihar’s Jeevika programme, designed to increase the financial inclusion and empowerment of women in the state, signed informal agreements with the whisper circles. They agreed not to approve loans for marriages of girls below 18 years and to help families access alternative financial support.

Panchayat heads and ward members pressured pandits, mithaiwalas and caterers to stop providing their services at weddings involving minors. “When customers come to my shop to buy wedding decoration items, I explain that together we have decided to keep children safe from early marriage and ask to see the Aadhar card copies of the bride and groom before selling anything,” said one wedding decorator.

Panchayat heads and police gave speeches about a “zero child marriage” goal and even helped volunteers create groups of local men who agreed to intervene on issues of domestic violence and child protection.

“Men’s groups in our community are aware and looking out for signs of early marriage,” said Ganesh Kumar, a municipal supervisor from Phulwari Sharif. “We have decided that we will not let even one child marriage take place in our community this year.”

This proved very helpful because in 30% of Aangan’s cases, volunteers had to ask for the help of men’s groups to negotiate with fathers who were more likely to listen to men.

Child marriage perpetuates a cycle of poverty and gender inequality, depriving children of their fundamental right to a childhood. Patna’s women show how community responsibility for child protection can build resilience and lead to a gradual transformation of the social norms that place children in harm’s way.

*Names changed to protect identity.

The Aangan report on child marriages during Covid-19 can be accessed here.

Roshni Chakraborty is a student at Harvard College and a research associate at Aangan Trust.