A teenager from Belgavi district of Karnataka reached out to the Child Marriage Prevention Cell as she was being forced into marriage with a man who is, at least, a decade older than her. Her grandmother wished to see the girl get married before she died. In the quest to fulfil the grandmother’s desire, her parents pressured her into getting married against her wishes in November.
“She was lodged at a government shelter for children until the counselling for the girl and her family was completed. They had to be explained that child marriage is illegal and that how anyone who is involved or facilitates such a marriage will be imprisoned,” said the source from Child Marriage Prevention Cell, citing illiteracy and poverty as primary reasons for perpetuating this archaic practice.
Between February and October this year, the Karnataka State District Child Protection Units (DCPU), along with Child Marriage Prevention Cell (CMPC) and local non-governmental organisations (NGOs), have intervened and managed to stop nearly 114 cases of child marriage in Belgavi district alone, officials told TNM. The districts like Bellary, Chitradurga and Bagalkote, too, saw a spike in child marriage cases during the lockdown. Bellary DCPU intervened and stopped 208 marriages, while the authorities in Chitradurga intervened in nearly 103 child marriages during the period. The district officials conduct counselling for both the girl/boy and the families when such cases come to their notice and manage to prevent them.
In cases where the child marriage has already taken place, the police have registered first information reports (FIRs) against the families. Under the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006, solemnising marriages of children below 18 years (for girls) and below 21 years (for boys and men) is illegal. The police registered 10 FIRs in both Bellary and Chitradurga districts.
“Many families get their minor children married in the dead of the night to slip under the officials’ radar. Six such cases took place in Belgavi district. FIRs have been registered against the six families,” a District Child Protection Officer (DCPO) in Belgavi told TNM.
The illegal practice of child marriage is still prevalent in certain districts of Karnataka. The enforcement of lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic and subsequent closure of educational institutions facilitated a growth in the incidents of child marriage and child labour in rural Karnataka. Even though some schools are conducting classes online, many parents are likely to not consider such virtual classes as ‘actual schooling’ as opposed to children taking lessons in physical classrooms.
Besides, as a source from CMPC said, children from rural areas do not have an avenue to share their agony, especially at a time when schools are shut and they cannot reach out to teachers or other faculty for help. “Parents do not have an education and dismiss their children’s pleas or suggestions, claiming they have more ‘experience’. This behaviour is encouraged in the society around them, thus, rendering them helpless.”
Apart from illiteracy and poverty, alcoholism in rural areas, too, perpetrates child marriages. “In a bid to save children from the toxicity of alcoholic and violent family members, the elders think it is best to marry off the girl so that she can be ‘safe’ with her husband,” said Nishita, a member of the Concerned for Working Children (CWC), a Bengaluru-based non-profit organisation focussing on child rights.
The patriarchal norms still prevail in many of the rural areas, where girls and women are still not seen as an individual and capable entities like males. Families conceive an uninformed notion that it is best to marry off the girls as soon as possible to whoever they find ‘suitable’ in their vicinity.
“Some still don’t realise that child marriage is a crime. The awareness on a grass root level is minimal even today,” added Nishita.
The Karnataka State Department for Child Welfare, CMPC and DCPUs are broadcasting videos on television and hosting awareness programmes on All India Radio. “When we intervene in a case involving child marriage, we also provide counselling to the children and the parents to prevent them from repeating the offence. We have a 24x7 helpline number where children, families and others who are aware of such cases can reach out to us and help prevent child marriages,” said the DCPO.
Incidentally, the Union and state governments have been mulling over increasing the legal marriageable for girls to 21 years. “However, raising the legal marriageable age will not change much on the ground. Focussing on children’s rights, ensuring they get proper education and ensuring better employment opportunities for them or their families might help them instead,” said Nishita.
It is not just child marriage that has plagued districts of Karnataka. Since the closure of schools owing to the pandemic, there has been a surge in child labour cases as well.
Taking a note of the increased cases of child marriage and child labour, Karnataka High Court has directed the state government to make a decision on resuming Vidyagama scheme. The scheme was launched to help children from lower socio-economic backgrounds during the pandemic, who did not have access to the internet and laptops. The Vidyagama scheme aims to provide continuous learning plan for students of government schools across the state, at their doorsteps. The teachers would go to certain places closer to the residences of the students and carry out academic activities. However, the scheme, which was started in August 2020 by the Karnataka Education Department, was halted in October amid rising concerns over contracting COVID-19.
Giving the state government 10 days to respond, the High Court, on Friday, said that the scheme can be resumed to keep the students engaged, ensure they are not distracted and considering the COVID-19 cases in Karnataka are declining, reported Live Law.
The High Court on Friday asked the state governmentto approach various companies to provide funds for laptops, computers and tablets as part of the corporates social responsibility (CSR) activities. As the division bench of Justice BV Nagarathna and Justice NS Sanjay Gowda observed, “Extraordinary situations call for extraordinary remedies.”
Here is the 24x7 helpline number - 1098 - where children, families and others who are aware of such cases can reach out to us and help prevent child marriages. If you are aware of any minor facing pressure or is being forced by parents and relatives to get married or take up work, please alert the officials concerned. You can also contact organisations like the Concerned for Working Children - 080 2523 4271.