Child marriages in the metropolis of Bengaluru might appear to be a contradiction but data shows that since 2020, the city considered one of the fastest growing in the world, has been witnessing a spike in such marriages. In 2022 alone, till August, 51 complaints of child marriages were received but only 42 of them could be stopped. While the authorities have been able to thwart at least 84% of the attempts to marry off underage children during this period, more than one child marriage is illegally solemnised every month in Bengaluru urban and rural combined, data shows.
A total of 47 marriages have occurred in Bengaluru between 2020 and August 2022, according to data from the Department of Women and Child Development. Out of the 279 complaints, the authorities were able to stop 232 marriages. Karnataka witnessed a total of 418 child marriages in 2021-22, indicating a 300% increase when compared to 2017-18, according to a report. One of the reasons attributed for the spike in child marriages in Karnataka is the COVID-19 pandemic, which resulted in job loss and widening of economic disparities. Brinda Adige, a child rights activist with Global Concerns India, says that the loss of jobs, online classes, and children losing one or both parents due to COVID-19 are some of the reasons for the surge in child marriage.
“Schools switched to online mode of classes while parents lost their jobs. Many weren’t able to pay the school fees for the child to continue their online classes which resulted in a lot of children dropping out of school and looking for work to support the family.” she said. As per government figures, over 15 crore children in India have dropped out of school since the pandemic struck. As jobs were not available, there was an increase in unorganised work taken up by the parents.
After schools began, those who missed online classes and exams were not able to make up for the gap, and as they were already earning, they chose not to go to school and continue to work. “This leads to the parents worrying about the girl's safety at work. If the girls chose to stay at home, that was also another burden to them. They consider her a liability and decide to get her married as to them, marriage equals a stable and settled future for their daughters.” Brinda said.
As COVID-19 restrictions were in place, marriages were simple with fewer participants and lesser expenditure, encouraging parents to marry their daughters early. Friends of children getting married, neighbours, school staff and Anganwadi workers are the main sources who tip the officials about child marriages. However, during the pandemic, as schools and Anganwadis remained closed and people preferred to stay indoors, there was a gap in receiving the information.
Brinda says that the case of child marriages is high in Hindu families compared to other religions as the marriage ceremony is done through rituals in a temple, and most of the marriages are not registered. The priests conducting the ceremony also do not refuse or inform the local authorities that child marriage is taking place.
Brinda cites the case of a 14-year-old girl,whose marriage was stopped following their timely intervention. The girl who excelled in her studies was forced to marry a 28-year-old man by her family members. When Brinda and her team intervened, they were told that they both loved each other and the girl didn’t want to continue studying anymore. The man was arrested and the girl was moved to the children's home, where she stayed three weeks. . However, after going back to the family she came back and told the activists that her mother was threatening her with suicide if she didn’t marry. There was no counsel given to the family or the man by the welfare units of the government. Seeing this, Brinda requested the block education officer to transfer the girl to a different school as the family insisted on her getting married. She is currently living in a government hostel. She scored 84% in her 10th standard exam and is attending college now. However, her family has cut ties with her for refusing to heed to their demand.
When information regarding a child marriage that has happened or will take place is received, a suo motu complaint should be filed by the police officials. However, this step is avoided by the police and the child protection officers as they have to deal with the lengthy court procedure later. As per the data, only 44 FIRs have been registered from 2020 to August 2022. “The case takes about two years to be brought in court and the police and child protection unit will try avoiding it as they don’t want to deal with the tedious process. Police officers are also not trained or equipped to perform social investigations, which are not considered a priority,” Brinda alleged.
The Union Cabinet has cleared a proposal to raise the minimum marriage age for women from 18 to 21. Karnataka brought in the Prohibition of Child Marriage (Karnataka Amendment) Act, 2016 in April 2017 and made all underage marriages void, meaning such marriages can be annulled at any time by any of the parties.
“It doesn’t matter if the government pushes the age limit to 21, if they are not willing to address the issues that lead to the girl child getting married, the marriages will continue to happen,” said Kavita Ratna, a child rights activist with The Concerned for Working Children (CWC), a Bengaluru-based non-profit.
As per Young Voices National, a report that she worked on child marriages will increase if an amendment is made to the law without bringing about a change in the reality.
According to the report, two major reasons for early marriage and child marriage were limited opportunities for girls to study and fear among families of girls developing relationships of their choice both underscoring the low value given to girls’ aspirations within the family and society.
The study observed that, where the law goes against community norms, it is not effective in decreasing child marriage and indeed is only invoked when communities find ways to use the law to sustain social norms. The young people interviewed for the study were clear that there would also be negative repercussions from families and society in terms of increased control and surveillance.
The root causes of early and child marriage are poverty, norms around the centrality of marriage, patriarchy and control over girls’ sexuality. A law to change the age of marriage does not address all these causes.