While traditional reasons for child marriage include poverty and a misplaced focus on family ‘honour’, the Covid-19 pandemic is likely to result in more under-age girls being married away.
Across the globe, 9 out of 10 children are in lockdown in their homes, due to the coronavirus pandemic. Still, the incidence of violence against women and children, specifically in the form of child marriage, remains unabated.
Maybe, at some point, COVID-19 will be a couple of pages in our history books. But when will we seriously start considering – that child marriage is a crime against a girl?
Recently, a 16-year-old girl in South India died of suicide after being forced to marry her own relative. Another girl of around the same age, from Karnataka, a daughter of a migrant worker, battles to fight her premature marriage which was forcefully solemnized with a 36-year-old man during this lockdown period as her father lost his job during the ongoing crisis.
Ironically, in Rajasthan, where child marriages incidences used to be the highest in the country, zero cases have been officially reported, due to strict enforcement of the lockdown. All these incidents put a question in my mind: “Why is this practice so pervasive that people are not afraid even of such pandemics?”
We were already trapped in the middle of a chronic social pandemic of child marriage when this acute covid-19 pandemic struck. But nobody seems to be worried. According to a Plan International report, 30% of girls in South Asia marry before their 18th birthday. Each year, 12 million girls across the world are married, which is a girl every 2 seconds. It sounds unbelievable, but unfortunately, it’s true and is very real.
Countries in Central Africa, as well as South Asia, have the highest incidence of child marriages. In Bangladesh it’s 59%, in Nepal, nearly 37%, and in Niger, 76% of the married women in the age group of 20-24 years, were first married before they were 18. A few years ago, Fathima, from India, became the youngest divorcee at just 8 years of age.
Although, the prevalence may differ across countries, child marriage is a universal challenge across cultures and religions, and because of it, thousands die and live a life of torture.
UN Women recently released a note on the issue which said, “The UN analysis predicts that coronavirus pandemic will have a ‘catastrophic impact’ on women and girls and will result in millions of child marriages and unwanted pregnancies”.
COVID-19 is exacerbating the problem as we notice that shelter homes, legal-aid, and crisis centers have been scaled back, which were the most important sources of help for women in violent and abusive relationships. The fast-spreading virus has forced girls to stay at home, leaving them with little opportunity to seek shelter and solace, as remedies.
Child marriage undermines the aspirations of children, mostly girls and increases their exposure to risk in the form of physical, sexual, and psychological violence. Girls who marry before 18, are more likely to experience violence from their intimate partner. Many of them, describe their first sexual experience as forced, due to the age difference and patriarchal dynamics. They often struggle to assert or negotiate their wishes to their husband for safe and consensual sex.
Older males have a higher probability of being more sexually experienced, resulting in greater lifetime risk of carrying transmitted infections like HIV. Early pregnancy, and increased workload, affect girls’ mental health, and as a result, child brides are three times more likely to develop an antisocial personality disorder compared to those who married as adults. Thus, for too many girls, their homes are not safe places.
The reasons for child marriage are complex and vary across communities, with customs and social norms being the main driving factors on the social front; the reasons include avoiding unwanted male attention, protecting chastity and preserving family honour, on the psychological front, and poverty and financial the burden on the economic front, as giving away a daughter in marriage, reduces the burden of dowry and expenses incurred to feed, educate and clothe her, since her childhood.
According to UNICEF’s 2018 report, there has been a decline in the global rate of child marriages, with an estimate of 25 million child marriages being averted in the previous decade, with huge and significant progress in South Asia. But a few days back, the United Nations Population Fund released a new report stating that, this corona pandemic will result in 13 million additional cases of child marriage over the next decade. This scenario threatens to deliver a devastating blow to the existing efforts to eradicate child marriage, going on since past decades.
It is now an established fact that many of the complex factors that drive child marriage in a stable environment get exacerbated during health emergencies like COVID-19 pandemic. For example, during the Ebola crisis between 2014 to 2016, there was a sharp increase in the incidences of child marriages in Sierra Leone. Also, in this country, teenage pregnancies increased by up to 65%, during that crisis, and related displacement, where girls spend more time at home, became a common phenomenon.
Even in this present COVID-19 pandemic, as per Indian Women and Child Ministry data, the dedicated child line prevented 898 child marriages, between 25th March to 5 April 2020, and received 37 calls reporting child marriages. We are likely to see the same effects globally as in the present scenario, millions of girls are out of school, the traditional family and community structures have broken down and a considerable loss of household income is prominently visible.
An abrupt disruption of child marriage prevention programs, increasing fears of food insecurity, higher vulnerability to violence and lack of access to schooling, has become a widespread phenomenon.
Legally speaking, child marriage persists in South Asia, and particularly in India, at a large scale, because of the presence of a complex web of contradictory laws and regulations, which includes Civil code, Criminal code, and statutory act.
In India, Child marriage is prohibited under the Prohibition of Child Marriage act, 2006, since one-and-a-half decades. But still, the custom persists due to poor enforcement mechanisms and presence of exceptions to general law arising from religion-based laws. The situation gets amplified when other factors like the absence of accountability, lack of political will and poor implementation of laws are taken into consideration.
This twin crisis demands a concerted effort by all stakeholders – parents, NGOs, community, and government. National governments need to be more vigilant in monitoring the incidences of child marriages, during this COVID crisis. Gender sensitised programs, providing flexible digital learning approaches for teaching girls, along with strengthening efforts to raise awareness in rural areas about the harmful effects of child marriage, are immediately required. The creation of special police cells is the need of the hour.
In the post-COVID scenario, there is a special need to ensure the return of girls back to school by engaging youth, as a long-term developmental-policy measure. Recently, UN Women issued a recommendation for all sectors, on COVID-19, for ending violence against women and girls, and these recommendations can be a good starting point for all organizations and governments.
It stressed: “These mitigating steps need to be undertaken immediately, by all stakeholders to stop this pandemic from becoming a catastrophe for girls. For a brighter and better post-COVID world, it is necessarily required that the most vulnerable sections of our community is sufficiently safeguarded.”
Image courtesy this short film on child marriage
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Women and Child rights activist, Blogger, Author# UNICEF# #International youth journal#
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