After receiving letters and WhatsApp messages from minor girls seeking help and anonymous alerts from vigilant villagers, the state government and NGOs have intervened to stop as many as 80 instances of child marriages in Maharashtra since the nationwide lockdown was enforced in March. So far, FIRs have been registered in 16 other cases in which the incidents came to light after the marriage ceremonies.
According to data collated by the state’s Women and Child Development (WCD) department, a surge is being seen in cases of child marriages due to factors including the lockdown, and the resultant closure of schools, impact on rural economy and lack of financial security and uncertainty over livelihood which has pushed many into poverty.
“Most number of cases were reported in Solapur, Buldhana and Aurangabad districts so far with 11, 10 and eight cases respectively so far,” said WCD assistant commissioner Manisha Biraris. She added that steps were being taken to study the reasons and to continue to stall such forced marriages through interventions from child marriage prohibition officers and child protection committees across the state.
The National Crime Records Bureau’s annual Crime in India report states that only 13 cases were reported under the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act in 2018, 20 in 2017 and 16 in 2016 in the state. Officials said that incidents in which girls as young as 13 were being forced to marry have come to light from March to June, including in some cases to men double their age. Most ceremonies were taking place within homes without inviting any relatives due to the lockdown which authorities say mean that the numbers could be higher.
In most cases, WCD department, police and district, taluka and village level child protection committees have been receiving alerts or calls are being received by helplines like CHILDLINE including from the minor girls.
“A 14-year-old girl called us and said that she wanted to study further but was being forced to marry. We took basic details from her like her name, age, address, venue of the marriage to ensure that she is not intimidated. Police and other local authorities were alerted and the marriage was stopped a few hours before the ceremony,” said Vijay Muttur, protection officer from Solapur, where the maximum cases have been reported.
In most cases, parents of the minor girls were counselled. “In many cases, parents told us that they did not have money to pay an extra person due to the financial strain on them. Many children depended on their schools for at least one meal a day,” Muttur said.
Other officials said that in some cases parents expressed apprehension that the temporary shutdown of schools had also made the girls vulnerable to sexual harassment within large families or neighbourhoods hence they sought to marry them. “There is an apprehension regarding when things will get back to normal. Many said that they did not know if they will have enough money later to perform the marriages. The worrying trend is the young age group of 13-15 being forced into marriages,” said Divesh Marathe, the district child protection officer from Buldhana. He added that detecting cases is also becoming difficult because when asked about the whereabouts of minor girls, parents say they have gone to the homes of relatives. “When schools are functioning regularly, the girls dropping out or their lack of attendance for days immediately brings their absence to notice,” Marathe said.
“We have directed gram sevaks and aganwadi workers to give us monthly reports of adolescent girls in the villages,” said Muttur about Solapur district. Authorities said that in some cases, it has also been reported that gram sevaks colluded with those performing the marriages.
Appropriate action will be initiated, officials added.
“Due to the financial crisis being faced by many today, given a choice between educating the boy or the girl in the family, there is a likelihood of many girls being forced to drop out and hence forced into marriage. There is a need to strengthen the child protection committees and the working of child marriage prohibition officers to increase community participation to prevent such incidents,” said Santosh Shinde, child rights activist and founder of group Vidhayak Bharti.
Other 12 districts including Mumbai, Pune, Thane, Palghar, Satara, Raigad, Bhandara, Sindhudurg, Nandurbar, Gadchiroli have not reported a single case. Officials said this could also mean such instances may have gone unreported in these districts.
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