Child helpline services across the country have reported an alarming spike in the incidents of child marriage during the pandemic. According to a recent UNICEF report, the pandemic has put nearly one crore more girls at risk of becoming child brides over the course of the coming decade.
These figures are highly distressing since India is already among the five countries that account for about half of the total child brides globally. Many complex factors that usually drive child marriage, such as poverty, lack of education, early pregnancy, have not only worsened in the Covid-19 crisis, but the pandemic has further created new socio-economic challenges that need to be effectively addressed and tackled.
Pandemic-induced drivers of child marriage
The rise in child marriages in the pandemic can be broadly attributed to five overarching factors. These are economic insecurity, interrupted education, disruption of social services, lack of access to sexual and reproductive healthcare, and parental deaths. These factors are interlinked and operate in complex and varied ways.
High Job Losses and Economic Insecurity
During the pandemic, government-imposed lockdown led to more than 12 crore Indians losing jobs by May 2020. The resulting economic insecurity limited the ability of parents to provide for their children and forced them to resort to child marriage to alleviate poverty. Moreover, the pandemic aggravated economic strain and loss of household income forced families to marry off their young girls, perceiving them as ‘financial burdens’ or a ‘liability’ draining limited family resources. Child marriage is used as a survival strategy for short-term financial security for many families. It works as a mechanism to generate quick income or as a method to reduce costs. Generally, younger brides need to give lower dowries because they are considered “easier to control, train and socialize”. Additionally, a pandemic-related incentive to marry was the restrictions imposed on the number of guests invited to wedding functions. The limitations helped as a cost-cutting measure for low-income families.
School Closures and Loss of Education
According to UNESCO, 150 crore children and youth were impacted by school and university closures in 195 countries by the middle of April 2020. Such a large-scale shutting down of schools pushed many children into early marriage — especially girls since education was no longer an option. As evidence from the Ebola outbreak suggests, girls may drop out entirely or have a very low probability of returning to school once they reopen. In India, it is estimated that the pandemic could have caused one crore secondary school girls to drop out of school. Moreover, due to the gendered digital divide, the absence of digital infrastructure, and the burden of unpaid care work, many girls living in rural areas are unable to access online education. Even if a family has a smartphone, it is monopolized by men of the family. The economic downturn caused by the pandemic also made it difficult for low-income families to afford education, resulting in prioritizing the education of boys over girls.
This disruption in education severely impacts the future of girls since education is a huge determinant of the age of marriage. Data demonstrates that girls with secondary schooling are up to six times less likely to marry as children as compared to girls who have little or no education. Lockdowns and closure of schools meant that girls spend more time at home and out of the protective net of school, making them more susceptible to domestic violence and sexual violence.
Disruption of Social Services and Interventions
The pandemic, its resulting lockdowns, and social distancing measures disrupted the interventions and programmes aimed to reduce child marriage by various governmental organisations, NGOs, and civil society. This included various adolescent-friendly organisations, social services, awareness campaigns, community engagement, mahila mandals, etc. UNFPA estimates that out of 1.3 crores more child marriages to take place over the 2020-2030 decade, 74 lakhs will be attributed to interruption in programme implementations. Moreover, most of the frontline and social workers resources were redirected to deal with Covid-19 outbreaks. Other services were overlooked. For instance, reportedly, in parts of India, Child Marriage Prohibition Officers [CMPOs] were occupied with COVID-19 management, thereby reducing their surveillance and vigilance. Further, the closure of schools and community centres restricted children’s mobility and communication, cutting them off from their teachers, peers, local support systems, and formal legal systems. The gendered digital divide also curbs the possibility of seeking help since most girls and women do not have access to mobile phones or helplines to report incidents.
Reduced Access to Sexual and Reproductive Healthcare
The pandemic also substantially hindered access to sexual and reproductive healthcare for girls and women everywhere. These directly impacted unintended pregnancies and the child marriages that were born from unwanted conception. Closure of such health services and disruption in timely deliveries of contraceptives and menstrual hygiene supplies can cause considerable difficulty in accessing contraception, safe abortion care, emergency maternal health care, HIV testing, and treatment. Increased adolescent pregnancies among unmarried girls are likely to increase pressure on girls to marry early. According to a UNFPA report, 14 lakh unintended pregnancies have been estimated in the pandemic due to lack of access to sexual and reproductive health services. Thus, globally, pregnancy is both a cause and a consequence of child marriages, leading to poor maternal and foetal health outcomes.
Covid-19 related deaths of children’s parents have increased the likelihood of female orphans being married off early. In many cases, family members may find it hard or unwilling to support young girls. India saw over 4 lakh deaths due to Covid-19, and evidence from media reports suggests that girls orphaned are married off early, especially in states such as Bihar, Rajasthan, Maharashtra. In some cases, parents’ fear and worry of who will look after the child if they succumb to Covid-19 pushed many children into underage marriage.
The impact of child marriage on children and adolescents, especially girls, is devastating and lifelong, with irreversible effects on health, education, opportunities, and livelihood. As the pandemic threatens to reverse years of gender equality gains, it’s important to effectively address the key factors contributing to child marriage while also responding to new and emerging challenges created by the pandemic. There is a dire need to build and maintain a database on child marriages in the pandemic to determine the true magnitude and the prevailing ground realities in India. Additionally, child marriage prevention programmes could be integrated with other efforts aimed to curb the spread of the virus and the socioeconomic consequences of the pandemic.
There is a need to focus on gender-responsive social and child protection measures, poverty alleviation programmes, continuity in access to health services, and improve the social and economic conditions that make girls more vulnerable. Further, keeping girls in school should be a priority, with strong measures in place to ensure a safe return of girls to schools. Though the full impact of the pandemic is unclear, there is an immediate need to reimagine approaches to eliminate child marriage and accelerate action on child protection measures.