Last month, a 17-year-old girl showed up at the office of the Block Development Officer (BDO) in Hariharpara in West Bengal’s Murshidabad district. She had made the two-and-a-half-hour journey from her home 11 km away because her family was forcing her into marriage, she told the officer, and begged him to protect her.
The severe economic distress of the lockdown — and subsequently the devastation and dislocations caused by cyclone Amphan — have made girls and young women belonging to marginalised sections of society in West Bengal extra vulnerable.
There are data to show that attempts to force minor girls into marriage rose more than two-and-a-half times the normal-time average during the first month of the lockdown, and activists and government officials fear a major spike in crimes, including trafficking of women and girls in the coming weeks and months.
Between March 23 and April 23, the West Bengal State Commission for Protection of Child Rights (SCPCR) received 136 complaints — more than four every day on average — about underage girls being forced into marriage.
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The largest number of these complaints came from the districts of Murshidabad, North and South 24-Parganas, East and West Midnapore, Malda, and Uttar and Dakshin Dinajpur, the data show. During normal times, only about 50 such complaints are received every month on average.
The reason, officials from the government and nongovernmental organisations told The Indian Express, could be acute poverty, exacerbated by the loss of jobs and incomes due to the lockdown.
The distress and uncertainty could be nudging those living on the fringes to try to get rid of the perceived burden of feeding girl children; and the reduced cost of a wedding during the lockdown could have seemed like an added incentive.
Also, officials and social workers said, the closure of schools had shut down the primary source of information for the authorities on attempts by families to marry off minor children.
They said that the distress — which would only have worsened in the wake of cyclone Amphan — would likely increase the attempts at trafficking minor girls with promises of jobs and marriages outside the state. This pattern had been seen after cyclone Aila devastated Bengal last year, they said.
“It is very unfortunate that in this time of lockdown, parents are thinking that since the administration is busy, they can easily marry off their minor girl children,” SCPCR chairperson Ananya Chakraborty said.
“But we have built a strong network; we are getting information on almost all incidents, and taking steps.”
The Commission discussed the issue in meeting on May 12, which was attended by stakeholders including government departments, the police, and NGOs.
Rishi Kant of Shakti Vahini, an NGO fighting against human trafficking, said: “Poor parents want to be rid of the responsibility for a girl child. There are too many mouths to feed, and following the lockdown, poor and marginalised people have no money or food. Touts may be taking advantage of the situation as well.”
Rishi Kant said the distress could have set back the progress made in preventing the trafficking of girls and child marriages in West Bengal by several years. “We expect a spike in trafficking incidents following the cyclone and after the lockdown is lifted. This happened after cyclone Aila too,” he said.
Sandip Mitra, head of the Eastern Regional Resource Centre of Childline Foundation, the nodal agency of the Union Ministry of Women and Child Development to operate India’s national child helpline number, said: “It is difficult for parents of poor families to arrange for two meals a day in these difficult times for their children… There is an economic reason, and they are vulnerable.”
West Bengal though, is the only state that has included child protection activities among emergency services, Mitra said. “Our teams can move about freely and intervene in cases. Our teams are also counselling families, and providing them food support. So many calls are coming these days,” he said.
The childline in Murshidabad, the district where the 17-year-old lives, recorded 12 complaints of minors being forced into marriage during the first month of the lockdown.
“We tried to intervene with the help of authorities, but in some of these cases, the child had already been married off. This district is particularly vulnerable,” Sraboni Mukhopadhyay, co-ordinator of the Murshidabad childline, said.
Hariharpara BDO Purnendu Sanyal, to whom the 17-year-old had gone, said he had taken an undertaking from the family that they would not try again to marry her off.
“The girl’s family is very poor. She has two brothers. Her father is an agricultural labourer. Her parents had tried to marry her off last year too, and they thought they would succeed due to the lockdown this time. But her bravery thwarted them,” Sanyal said.
Dilip Bose, childline co-ordinator for Kolkata, said “five to six” cases had been reported in the state capital as well.
Chittopriya Sadhu, deputy director, programme management (East) of the NGO Save the Children, said West Bengal sees more child marriages than several other states. “The NFHS 4 (2015-16) data showed more than 41% of women in the age-group of 20-24 years were married before the age of 18,” Sadhu said.
Kakoli Ghosh Kundu, the designated Police Officer for Child Protection in South 24-Parganas district, said: “We have been getting many complaints of child marriage during the lockdown. We have been able to stop almost every case. But we fear after the lockdown is lifted, there might be attempts to smuggle these girls out of the state.”
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