INNOCENCE LOST

img1 M L Satyan
29 Mar 2021

Sad story

Sudha was a healthy 16-year-old student in south India. Now she is dead. It was not Covid-19 that killed her - not directly anyway. She was found hanging in her house located in a rural village of Karnataka in May, 2020. She died shortly afterwards at a nearby hospital. Sudha committed suicide, after being forced to marry a relative. Allegedly, police initially attempted to hush up the case, but eventually the parents of both the bride and the groom were arrested.

Alarming Statistics - Karnataka

Amid the Covid-19 induced lockdown, Karnataka saw a sharp rise in child marriages. There has been 15 percent increase in child marriage in Karnataka during Covid-19 period. According to the Karnataka State Commission for Protection of Child Rights (KSCPCR), the state had reported188 child marriages between April and December 2020. Speaking to Indianexpress.com, KSCPCR Chairman Dr. Sebastian Anthony said, “When the administration was busy handling Covid-19 lockdown across the state, parents thought this was the best time to get their girl children married. There could be marriages that went unnoticed by the administration due to the lockdown. But the Childline, the nodal agency for children in distress had made over 550 interventions between March and June, 2020 related to the issues of child marriage in the state.” 

He further said, “Schools and colleges also remained closed for an extended period, making it impossible to monitor the attendance of girls. The parents used all these changes to marry their under-aged girl children during the lockdown.” Most cases of child marriages were reported from Bellary, Mysuru, Bagalkot, Dharwad, Belagavi, and from the rural parts of the state, as per the data by the KSCPCR. Meanwhile, officials say that the numbers have doubled due to the awareness about the ‘181’ helpline number for women. “The number of cases has doubled compared to those reported last year in the same period. But because of the various awareness programmes conducted by the government particularly about ‘181’ helpline number,” said, K A Dayanand, Director, Women and Child Development Department in Karnataka.

Dr Anthony also said, “Cost-cutting is the main reason for parents conducting marriages of their daughters during the pandemic. Usually, marriages are a big affair and parents take huge loans to conduct marriages. The lockdown and the pandemic restricted big marriage functions and this made the parents conduct marriages to save money. We were able to stop most of the marriages after receiving a tip-off or the complaints in the helpline. Despite most officials not being available due to lockdown, we managed to stop marriages and also reached the spots and booked cases.” This was confirmed by Dinakaran newspaper on 03 January, 2021 with this news: Highest number of child marriages have taken place in these districts - 26 in Hasan; 25 in Mandya; 24 in Mysuru and 19 in Belagavi. According to NGOs and Child Rights activists a big number of child marriages went unnoticed. Hence, they are very skeptical about the claim made by the state government authorities regarding the stoppage of marriages.   

Interestingly, this is a state ruled by BJP. It is known to the world that the party came to power sheerly by “horse-trade”. The CM and party members propagate the ideas of Modi. Sad to note that the party is least bothered about the increasing child marriages in the state. This is a clear evidence that the ruling BJP has completely forgotten the pet slogan/scheme of Modi – Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao.  
  
Alarming Statistics - Global

In its new report Global Girlhood 2020: COVID-19 and progress in peril, Save the Children analysed the impact of Covid-19 on gender equality, revealing its devastating effects. The report shows that:

•    78.6 million child marriages have been prevented over the last 25 years but even before the coronavirus, progress to end the practice had slowed to a halt.

•    Although data is limited, girls affected by humanitarian crises - like wars, floods, droughts, earthquakes, and disease outbreaks - face the greatest risks of child marriage. 

•    Gender-based violence was a pandemic long before Covid-19, with an estimated one in 10 girls globally having experienced rape or sexual violence from a current or former boyfriend or husband. The coronavirus has now led to increased reports of gender-based violence around the world.

•    An estimated 5,00,000 more girls are at risk of being forced into child marriage and as many as one million more are expected to become pregnant in 2020 as a result of the economic impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic.

•    Up to 2.5 million additional girls are expected to marry over the next five years. Together with the 58.4 million child marriages taking place on average every five years, this amounts to a staggering 61 million child marriages by 2025.

•    The UN expects an additional two million cases of female genital mutilation (FGM) to take place over the next 10 years as a result of the pandemic, mostly affecting girls under 14 years.

•    The UN Population Fund estimates that the result will be 13-million additional cases of child marriage over the next 10 years.

Inger Ashing, CEO of Save the Children International said, “The pandemic means more families are being pushed into poverty, forcing many girls to work to support their families, to go without food, to become the main caregivers for sick family members, and to drop out of school with far less of a chance than boys. A growing risk of violence and sexual exploitation combined with growing food and economic insecurity - especially in humanitarian emergencies - also means many parents feel they have little alternative but to force their girls to marry men who are often much older.” He further said, “Every year, around 12 million girls are married, two million before their 15th birthday. Half a million more girls are now at risk of this gender-based violence in 2020 alone - and these only are the ones we know about. We believe this is the tip of the iceberg. 

Devastating effects

The Covid-19 pandemic is already having a devastating effect on families, communities and economies, and we are still to see the full impact on the poorest countries and those with fragile health, social welfare, communications and governance systems. The virus, and government measures to contain its spread, will be most devastating for those working in the informal sector who cannot isolate themselves, including slum-dwellers and those living in refugee and internally displaced persons (IDPs) camps.

Many of the complex factors that drive child marriage in stable environments are exacerbated in emergency settings, as family and community structures break down during crisis and displacement. A pandemic of this nature also presents unique challenges that can increase child marriage both in the acute and recovery phases. Challenges include the loss of household income, higher risk of domestic violence and lack of access to schooling. Plan International research shows that, in crisis settings, girls live in fear of violence and are not only concerned about the constant presence of armed men, but also about gender-based violence (GBV) within families. The breakdown of social networks can also heighten families’ and communities’ desire to control girls’ sexuality and protect their “honour.” Marriage is often seen to protect girls and their families from the social stigma that can result from surviving rape or sexual assault. These risks can be greater in camps where girls are exposed to a different environment than their previous community. Parents might marry their daughters out of fear of pre-marital pregnancy or relationships, which can bring shame on the family.

The causes of child marriage are complex and vary across communities. The main driving factors include gender inequality, antiquated cultural norms, and poverty. In many parts of the world, girls are not seen as potential wage earners, but rather as a financial burden, which marriage transfers to the husband’s family. Giving a daughter away in marriage leaves the family with one less mouth to feed, one less child to educate and one less body to clothe. The freed-up financial resources can then be invested in the education of sons, which is seen as more worthwhile. 

Violation of rights

The practice of marrying children is appalling and a grave violation of human rights, not least because it often amounts to giving men a licence to rape, to put it bluntly. Sex with a child who is not yet competent to consent to sexual acts is rape - plain and simple - and calling the child a “wife” or “husband” does not change that. Child marriage undermines the aspirations of children, mostly girls, who are just at the beginning of their lives and robs them of the chance to realise their potential. Becoming a wife typically marks the end of a girl’s education, cementing her dependence on men, and increasing exposure to the risks of domestic violence, early pregnancy and contracting HIV. The CEO of Save the Children International said, “These marriages violate girls’ rights and leave them at increased risk of depression, lifelong violence, disabilities, and even death - including from childbirth, given their bodies simply are not ready to bear children.”

Action Plan

Save the Children runs programmes and is campaigning to address the growing risk of gender-based violence against girls, including child marriage, while supporting girls’ rights to education, health and empowerment so they can participate in decision-making from the community to the global level. 

1.    Raise girls’ voices by supporting their right to safe and meaningful participation in all public decision-making through the Covid-19 response, recovery and beyond. 

2.    Address immediate and ongoing risks of gender-based violence; recognise that child protection workers and those who address gender-based violence provide ‘essential services’; strengthen protective systems; and continue to implement transformative programming to address the root causes of gender-based violence.

3.    End child marriage and support girls who are already married to realise their rights-through law reform; national action plans that span various sectors like health, education, etc.; and working with communities to build support to change harmful gender norms that cause gender-based violence, including child marriage.

4.    Invest in girls now with new, not repackaged, investments to prevent the worst outcomes of Covid-19 for girls, and to enable progress and lasting change.

5.    Count every girl with improved data collection to put the girls who have been pushed furthest behind first, particularly in humanitarian contexts. This includes disaggregating data by sex, age-group and disability; conducting and building on analysis that looks at how gender and other identities-like class, race and disability- affect girls; and ensuring existing databases on child marriage, fill this critical data gap in accountability to girls.

Message

Sunita, 16-year-old, from Bihar, was forced to marry and leave school at the age of 12. She now advocates against child marriage in her village, participating in community events to raise awareness of girls' rights. She said: "I was told that some relatives were visiting my family. That’s when I found out my marriage had been arranged. I felt really terrible because I was still very young and was attending school with my friends. All my dreams were shattered in that moment. My message to all girls of my age would be to delay your marriage and do whatever it takes to fulfil your dreams." Shall we spread her message and ensure the protection of girls from the evil of child marriage?  

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