BHUBANESWAR: IN April, Swapna Bhoi, a member of a women’s group comprising panchayat functionaries, was invited to a wedding ceremony being held at a temple on the outskirts of Balianta block in Khurda district. Noticing the secrecy around the ceremony and the child-like appearance of the bride, she grew suspicious. She demanded the family to produce the bride’s aadhaar card, which they did after much hesitation. The card confirmed her doubts. The bride was only 14-year-old.
Though no police case was registered, the marriage attempt was foiled. The parents, who were rendered jobless during the pandemic, wanted to marry her off as the ‘groom’ had demanded no dowry and promised to provide for the family. The mother was adamant. She considered the marriage to be a good offer. In the past, she had married another minor daughter. Though this marriage was foiled, child rights activists claimed that three to four child marriages were secretly solemnised in the same block.
Covid 19 has provided a perfect breeding ground for the social evil to flourish in remote villages, they said. The Odisha State Commission for Protection of Child Rights (OSCPCR) has corroborated the growing trend of child marriages under the impact of Covid-19. Since April, as many as 180 incidents of child marriages have been reported from different parts of the State, data from the incidents reported by various district child welfare officers has revealed. “In all these cases, the attempts have been foiled. The girls have been rescued. Some of them have also been sent to child care institutions,” claimed OSCPCR chairperson Sandhyabati Pradhan. But, activists believe that successful attempts are no less.
The joblessness and abject poverty inflicted by the pandemic is forcing many parents to give off the minor girls in marriage. The families are exploiting lockdown restrictions to conduct low-cost ceremonies secretly, they stated. Rising incidents of elopement by minors is also another major cause. Child marriage prohibition officer of Kolonara block in Rayagada district G Girija, who had also witnessed a three to four cases in her area, said closure of schools has made children, particularly young girls, more vulnerable.
“We could intervene in one case, but there have three to four other incidents in which the minor girl eloped with the boy and got married,” she added. With the intervention of police and voluntary organisations, Girija had stopped the marriage of a 16-year-old girl of G. Rengalpadu village, five kilometres from Kolonara. The girl had fled with a 19-year-old boy. The boy’s family was trying to get the couple married. After the attempt was foiled, the girl’s family refused to bring her back home.
Therefore, she was sent to a childcare institution for temporary shelter, she said. Activists claimed the numbers are only tip of an iceberg. Economic downturn can lead to further surge in child marriages across districts, particularly the remote and backward areas. As per the factsheet of National Family Health Survey (NFHS-4) 2015-2016, in Odisha 21.3 per cent women in the age group of 20-24 years were married off before the legal age of 18 years.
More than half of the districts have a child marriage prevalence rate of more than 20 per cent. According to sources, various organisations in the State had prevented 411 child marriages in 2018. However, activists claimed that the State Government has not prepared any recent region specific data to ascertain the prevalence of child marriages.