In the last week of May, police in Telangana's Medchal district (located on the outskirts of Hyderabad) received a tip-off that a 16-year-old girl was married off to a 23-year-old man, at the Mutyalamma Temple of Kandlakoya village.
The minor is the daughter of a couple from Andhra Pradesh, who had migrated to Telangana in search of work a few years ago. The accused, also a construction labourer, developed an acquaintance with the girl and they reportedly began a relationship. This led to a dispute between the two families and when the village elders intervened, they shockingly ordered that the minor be married off at a local temple in their presence.
The police booked the groom, his parents and the minor's parents as well. The minor was later rescued by the Integrated Child Protection Scheme (ICDS) and shifted to a shelter home, where she will remain till she turns 18.
The police had also booked Gondlapochampally Municipal Vice Chairman Prabhakar and the others under various sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act, Prohibition of Child Marriage Act 2006 and Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989.
This case of child marriage is not an isolated incident. With the state under lockdown and experiencing several restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic, authorities say that the number of cases of child marriages, child labour and child sexual abuse have increased in Telangana.
As many as 204 child marriages have taken place in Telangana in the two-month lockdown period, according to the Telangana State Commission for Protection of Child Rights (TSCPCR). It was reported to the Commission by Childline that the 204 child marriages were conducted from March 24 to May 31.
In a press note, the SCPCR said, "The Commission takes it on a serious note because child marriages have serious implications on the lives of girl children."
Speaking to TNM, Brundadhar Rao, a member of the TSCPCR said, "Child marriages have increased because children are at home as schools are closed. Families often feel that since everyone is at home, they can get a 'task done' during the lockdown."
He added, â€œCases of child labour are because there has been no work for many people over the last few months and some families are resorting to sending their minor children to work as a result."
TSCPCR said that all District Collectors and Magistrates in the state have been asked to issue instructions to the officials concerned to take immediate action and steps to sensitise the public about the Prevention of Child Marriages Act, 2006.
"The advisory also asked them to strengthen village-level child protection committees, besides asking ICDS staff and Anganwadi teachers to look out for any such issues," Brundadhar said.
In some cases, authorities found that public representatives were abetting such marriages. "These public representatives were participating in the marriages or asking the families to go ahead. There have been cases when they raised a ruckus when the police managed to stop a marriage. In such cases, we have recommended that stringent penal action against them," Brundadhar said.
He added that the issue on the ground seems to be linked with poverty, rather than lack of awareness.
"Barring some remote tribes, there is awareness on the issue and all villagers know that marrying a minor girl below the age of 18 is illegal. The issue rather seems to be that of poverty in the current circumstances. In some cases, families tell us that they have other children to take care of and cannot feed so many mouths. So they look at marriage as a way to relieve themselves of this situation," he stated.
Meanwhile, the Commission, in its press note, said, "It is everybody's due responsibility to protect girl children from early marriages. Otherwise, it would affect them in every walk of their life, especially health and education."