The Brides for Survival: Tracking the Invisible Pandemic of Early Marriages in India

By: Reetika Revathy Subramanian

RAMNIKLAL MODI / Shutterstock.com

At first, they were suggestions, and then, they became official public directives: ‘wash your hands, keep your distance, and stay indoors’. These apparently simple actions that were meant to stem the threat posed by the COVID-19 virus and ensure complete safety, rendered 14-year-old Sakhi stranded, starving, and nearly married. Sakhi belongs to the historically marginalised Banjara caste community in India’s severely drought affected Marathwada region. In March 2020, Prime Minister Narendra Modi ordered a nationwide lockdown, limiting movement of the entire 1.3 billion population of the country to contain the spread of the virus. Following the overnight imposition, Sakhi’s parents, employed as migrant sugarcane cutters in the neighboring state, lost their jobs and had little money to trek their way back home. The government-run school in her village that she attended had also shut down,  eliminating her only secure meal for the day. Driven by debt and distress over the next few weeks, Sakhi’s family now considered her marriage a necessary decision for the very survival of their migrant household. It was to be solemnised in the ‘safety’ of their house without dowry — in the absence of both guests and the authorities. However, hours before the exchange, a local activist received a secret tip-off from a neighbor, and the ceremony was disrupted in the nick of time.  

Sakhi’s experience is not an isolated one. According to the Union Ministry of Women and Child Development, during the pandemic lockdown period from the last week of March up until June, authorities received 5,584 phone calls to prevent underage marriages across India. In addition, state governments and NGOs have increasingly received letters and WhatsApp messages from minor girls seeking help and anonymous alerts from vigilant villagers. Furthermore, child rights activists and frontline workers believe a number of ceremonies have gone unreported and unattended owing to the strict lockdown measures, small gatherings, and inadequate protective measures to monitor these exchanges. According to data collated by the state’s Women and Child Development (WCD) department, a number of factors stemming from the lockdown have contributed to the surge in cases of child marriages: the resultant closure of schools, reverse migration, the adverse impact on the rural economy and lack of financial security which has pushed many into poverty.

The Soaring Curve: 

Across India, an estimated 122 million people, mainly small traders and migrant wage labourers, have been rendered jobless since the imposition of the nationwide lockdown. Stories of migrants undertaking perilous and frantic journeys of hundreds of miles to get home – stranded at bus stops, inside factories, in dilapidated settlements in industrial areas, starving and experiencing a total loss of bearing- have been shared widely in the mainstream media. Invisible in these catastrophic discourses, as well as in the state’s own imagination, are the disproportionate burdens borne by adolescent girls and young women in migrant households back in their source villages. While it is too early and too difficult to establish a conclusive causal relation between the pandemic and the rise in early marriages, empirical evidence from conversations I have had with frontline workers and activists suggests a positive correlation. 

Learning from Climate Disasters: 

A growing body of largely empirical literature, particularly in Asia and Africa, examines the disproportionate impacts of, and the potential interlinkages between early marriage, climate change and natural disasters. This research offers both theoretical insights that have global resonance and ethnographic particularities that are relevant to the conversations on the COVID-19 pandemic. 

In the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami, for instance, minor girls in Indonesia and Sri Lanka were reportedly forced into marriage with tsunami widowers and in many instances did so to receive state subsidies for marrying and starting a family. In Sierra Leone, the 2014 Ebola outbreak placed enormous strain on public service provision due to the declining agricultural production, price spikes, lower incomes and food insecurity. During this period, the closure of schools and a lack of protection for girls created an enabling environment for child marriage and sex transactions between young girls and older men as a means of economic survival for families. In more recent times, the climate crisis in South Sudan compounded the already precarious situation on the ground. In addition to the impact of the civil war, the landlocked African country witnessed long periods of droughts since 2017, which were then followed by catastrophic floods in 2019. The crisis devastated the harvests, creating extreme food shortages that left more than 100,000 people facing famine and another one million at risk. This insecurity forced many families to marry off their girls in exchange for livestock using the ‘bidding process’. In some cases, girls were married so that their dowry could be used as a bride price for their brother or father to marry someone. 

Across the border, between July and August 2010, Pakistan witnessed abnormally heavy floods that killed more than 2,000 people and rendered nearly 14 million people homeless. In its aftermath, NGOs such as Girls Not Brides, Interact Worldwide and Plan International, reported an increased occurrence of child marriage across the 62 affected districts. In Nepal, meanwhile, evidence compiled by aid organisations and human rights activists have suggested an increase in the number of cases of gender-based violence, sex trafficking and child marriage following the earthquake in 2015. 

Thus, knotted in a complex quandary of poverty, control of sexuality and consolidation of power, empirical evidence from disaster-prone regions suggests that early marriage needs to be addressed as a means of survival, either necessary or available to maintain or secure basic rights such as food and education. The decision for a girl to marry—whether made by parents, other family members, or a girl herself—gets shaped by a web of intersecting factors, including poverty, access to education, social pressure and norms, harassment and intimidation, which is further exacerbated by disaster, or a pandemic. 

Brides for Survival: 

Ever since the announcement of the lockdown in March this year, Tatvasheel Kamble’s mobile phone has been ringing well into the wee hours. In a span of two months, Kamble, a member of the Child Welfare Committee in India’s Beed district, received more than 50 tip-offs about marriages of underaged girls being planned in the drought-affected villages of the district. “Earlier, I would receive less than half as many calls in a month,” said Kamble (interviewed in 2020), adding, “the marriages these days are being conveniently solemnised inside the homes, with less than 10 guests.” 

Incidentally, despite legal interventions over the years, India continues to have the largest absolute number of child brides in the world, according to a 2019 report published by UNICEF; one-third of the global total. The UNFPA’s State of the World Population Report 2020 released in June has further indicated that a one-year average delay in interventions to end this practice may lead to an estimated 7.4 million more child marriages worldwide. In addition, the pandemic-caused economic downturn is projected to result in an estimated 5.6 million additional child marriages between 2020 and 2030. 

Advocate Varsha Deshpande (interviewed in 2020) from the National Commission for Women said the pandemic has mainly “exposed the existing institutional and policy gaps in state responses”. In Maharashtra’s drought affected Marathwada region, where Deshpande works with migrant labour communities, child marriage has been a common practice for years. The labour migrants mainly belong to the historically marginalised peasant castes such as Banjara, Vanjari and Dhangar. The majority of them do not own land or own a very small piece of uncultivable land and have limited water storage capacity. The women and girls face the additional burdens of walking long distances to collect water, shortage of food and sexual violence. “When families migrate to the neighbouring states for work, they usually take their sons along for the farm work. The minor girls, who are left behind in the village with the older family members, are then at a very high risk of sexual violence,” said Deshpande, adding, “Parents also get their daughters married in the fear that she will fall in love with someone of her own choice in their absence.” 

This year, the Prime Minister’s announcement gave Indians exactly four hours to prepare for the lockdown. With little reliable information available, migrant workers – like everyone else – wanted to be with their families back in their rural homes during such a time of crisis. For many, there was little choice but to return home since employment opportunities had dried-up, landlords threatened to evict them from their homes due to impending non-payment of rents, and markets shut down without them getting a chance to purchase essential food items necessary for their survival. In Maharashtra, nearly half-a-million of the surplus migrant labour force had to abruptly leave the sugarcane fields and brick kilns without even receiving their full dues for the backbreaking labour undertaken for the six months preceding. The existing water scarcity left them with a disconcerting choice: they could either wash their hands or keep their social distance, since they would have to crowd around the dry public tanks and taps in the villages. The hours of labour required for young girls living in the household multiplied with the closure of schools and the increased number of family members. In the weeks ahead, it became difficult for many of the rural families to sustain themselves under these conditions. In March and April alone, driven by debt and uncertainty, 109 farmers and wage labourers from the region died by suicide. 

Under such circumstances, given the gendered labour burdens, the lack of adequate public provisioning, and social security in high migrant-sending regions such as Marathwada, child marriages solemnised in the ‘safety of the home’ are ironically a means to survive the pandemic. Even as it continues to spread, the novel coronavirus is further deepening the inequalities and exposing the existing vulnerabilities of patriarchal control, caste discrimination and capitalist extraction in India. 

It is a reminder for us to treat the cause, not the symptom. 

Reetika Revathy Subramanian is a PhD Candidate and Gates Cambridge Trust Scholar at the University of Cambridge Centre for Gender Studies, UK. She has spent the past ten years working as a journalist and researcher in India, documenting stories on girlhood, informality and climate migration. You can read her work here, and write to her at rs893@cam.ac.uk

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