* As Covid-19 aggravates the agrarian crisis, its direct consequences can be seen on social life in rural Maharashtra. The culture of child marriage prevails strongly in the Marathwada region, but the economic crisis unleashed by the pandemic has exacerbated it.

Sheetal’s body was found in a sugar cane field. Her father, the police said, had strangled her. She didn’t want to stay with her husband, but there was no place for her in her parental house. When she refused to go back to her husband last month, Prakash Bhange smothered her to death, the police said.

She was 14.

The teenager from Pimpla village in Marathwada’s Beed district wanted to be home. Last year, her parents had got her married to farmer Dadasaheb Toge from the district, but Sheetal kept coming back to her parents’ house. She wanted to go to school and play with her friends. “She wouldn’t listen,” her father told the police.

Sheetal is just one among many minors being forced to tie the knot in the region. Activists believe that farm distress, escalated by financial difficulties posed by Covid-19, has led to an increase in the number of underage girls being married. While there are no regional figures tracking the rise, according to media reports, the CHILDLINE number — 1098 — received 5,584 phone calls about issues relating to child marriages in the three-month coronavirus-induced lockdown until June.


Knotted up: Violence — physical, sexual, emotional — and early pregnancy can damage the girl child (representational photo)


“The Covid-19 crisis has definitely resulted in an increase in child marriages. You visit villages in Marathwada and you will find at least 4-5 cases of child marriages in every village since lockdown,” says Tatvasheel Kamble, a member of Beed’s Child Welfare Committee, which deals with children’s protection and needs. “The village economy has completely collapsed because of the lockdown. Some of the girls with whom we talked said that their fathers threatened suicide if they refused to marry. Many child marriages were carried out surreptitiously during the lockdown — conducted within households while many in the village remained unaware,” Kamble says. He adds that “low cost” marriages during lockdown helped families who otherwise had to take loans for marriage ceremonies.

The lockdown added to the economic crisis in the region. Labourers have returned home for lack of work in the cities, and there is hardly any work available in villages as agricultural activities have slowed down. In dire situations, the girl child is most affected. They are pulled out of schools and married (often with a bride price) to ward off hunger.

In the last few months, Kamble says, the committee has successfully intervened and stopped some 50 children from being wedded in the district.

“As Covid-19 aggravates the agrarian crisis, its direct consequences can be seen on social life in rural Maharashtra,” says economist H M Desarda, based in Aurangabad. The culture of child marriage prevails strongly in the Marathwada region, but the economic crisis unleashed by the pandemic has exacerbated it.

A crisis within a crisis

The problem of child marriage is an endemic one. While underage marriages are almost universally banned, they happen 33,000 times a day across the world, the UNFPA’s State of World Population 2020 report says. An estimated 650 million girls and women alive today were married as children, and by 2030, another 150 million girls under the age of 18 will be married, the recently released report states.

The report observes that child marriage has been shown to increase during humanitarian crises caused by natural disasters or conflicts. “...Girls deprived of educational opportunities during crises are then seen as remaining ‘inactive’ at home, furthering the perception that marriage is a positive transition for girls with limited options,” the report adds.

Pratibha (name changed), a villager in Sangli district, has been trying to stop parents from getting their minor daughters married. “Parents are often worried about their girls’ security and hence many are married at the age of 13-14,” Pratibha says. “Parents say that girls are like a glass vessel. Once there is a crack, it can’t be repaired,” she says, implying that molestation leaves a stigma on the girl and her family. The parents fear they will not be able to find a groom for a daughter who loses her virginity.

“The girl is nothing but a working machine in the family and field. She has to be married at the age of 14 and produce two or three children, preferably boys by the age of 18-20,” she says.

Pratibha’s campaign against child marriages in Sangli, western Maharashtra, has little support from villagers. Even her parents, she says, believe that her efforts are “anti-social” and will “destroy” the lives of girls, says 28-year-old Pratibha.

Contrary to what her parents and other villagers believe, it is being married as a child that causes untold damage. “...When a girl is married, her rights are violated. Her schooling ends. Childbearing begins. Opportunities evaporate. Doors to the future slam shut,” the UNFPA report states. “Sometimes she is given away. Sometimes she is traded for something of value. Sometimes she is a burden offloaded onto someone else. Sometimes she is handed over to someone deemed to be capable of ensuring her security. But rarely, if ever, is she the one who makes the decision,” it says.

Not my responsibility

Maruti Joshi knows that. An activist working in Pune’s slums, she has seen how prevalent child marriage is in urban areas, especially in the shanty towns. And she points out that many parents actually view marriage as security for their minor children.

Take the case of Rekha Waghmare (name changed). Waghmare, a domestic worker in Pune, is married to an alcoholic and is the mother of two young girls. Every time she stepped out for work, she worried about the security of her daughters. Then she thought she’d found a solution to the problem: She got her elder daughter married at the age of 15 to a young salesman.

“Now I am not worried about her. She is her husband’s responsibility,” Waghmare says, adding that once her daughter becomes a mother, she will “settle” in her life.

Her minor daughter, however, was completely in the dark about marital life and sex when she was married. Like 14-year-old Sona (name changed) in Jalna knew little about sexual acts when she was wedded, an activist says. Sona’s sister-in-law told her that after her marriage, she had to “hand over” herself to her husband and allow him to take control of her body and life.

The experts points out that violence — physical, sexual, emotional — and early pregnancy have lasting effects on girls’ mental health. Child marriages come with the pressure to raise children when the minor is still a child and has limited knowledge about the reproductive cycle. Child marriage can also lead to social isolation, stress, depression, and a sense of powerlessness, the UNFPA report states.

Satara-based advocate Varsha Deshpande, who leads a campaign against child marriages and sex determination cases, say the issue is directly connected to the economy. Minor girls are being “booked” for marriages also because of the skewed sex ratio favouring men, the outcome of female foeticide and infanticide.

“As a result of the killing of girl foetuses all these years, the number of girls has come down drastically. There are hundreds of villages where boys are not getting brides. Girls’ parents are accepting cash from groom’s to marry their minor girls,” Deshpande says. According to the Sample Registration System Statistical Report, published by the ministry of home affairs in 2018, Maharashtra has a sex ratio of 880 females per 1,000 males.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently hinted that the government was considering increasing the legal age of marriage for girls, which, at present, is 18. “This is not going to help. Parents are marrying off girls because of poverty and because girls are not secure. We as a society have to address these problems. The number of child marriages coming to the fore is because the administration is reporting cases and there is no political interference during the pandemic,” Deshpande says.

The government mechanism against child marriages is almost dysfunctional, the activists hold. At the village level, gram sevaks and anganwadi sevikas are supposed to monitor and report child marriage cases to the police and the administration. But the majority of gram sevaks and anganwadi sevikas keep quiet, forced to do so by village leaders such as the sarpanch, and because of their own relationship with the villagers.

“Child marriages prevail across districts in Maharashtra. But the number of cases is much higher in Marathwada where poverty and lack of education are higher compared to other parts of the state. Child marriages can’t be stopped by making laws. We need policy to ensure that girls are engaged in educational activities, especially skill development activities. All skill development and education must be free for girls till graduation,” says Tanaji Patil, chairperson of the Child Welfare Committee in Raigad district.


One step back: Only a third of girls who enter school complete seven years of schooling


Notwithstanding the government’s ‘Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao’ campaign, the ground reality is grim for girls who want to study. Household work, safety, distance from home and early marriage keep girls away from schools, the National Family Health Survey (NFHS) says. It reveals that while 69 per cent of females of age six and above have attended school, only a third complete seven years of schooling and only 13 per cent complete 8-9 years of schooling. The survey also reveals that girls show more interest in schooling and record fewer failures compared to boys. But families, it says, are likely to take girls out of school instead of boys during difficult times.

Covid-19 has added to the distress and there will be serious consequences in the coming months. “Lack of work, joblessness and distress will multiply, especially in rural areas of Maharashtra. I am not sure if I will be able to see my girl students back in the classroom when regular school resumes,” says Maruthi Khude, a school teacher in Osmanabad.

In Mhaisal village in Sangli district, Rukmini Patil (name changed) has just passed her Std X exam, but her parents are not sure about her future. She wants to attend junior college and dreams of becoming a teacher. But she knows that dreams are uncertain.

There are many Rukminis who will soon become brides. At least let them not lose their lives like Sheetal, some will argue. “But life after marriage is no less than hell for these girls,” holds Beed-based activist Manisha Tokle.

Radheshyam Jadhav