One morning in April, an anxious 15-year-old girl boarded a bus by herself, near her parents’ home in Fatehnagar, a town in Rajasthan. After being beaten and forced to get married by her parents—both daily-wage workers—she realised the only way to slip out of this situation and continue with her education was to make a run for it. Soon after boarding the local bus, she called a local anti-child-marriage activist and told her she would reach their office in roughly two hours.
“I was scared and didn’t know what to do,” the young adolescent, who dreams of becoming a police officer someday, told me. “This was the only thing I could think of.” Her brother’s wedding had been fixed, and her parents, who have not been able to earn much due to the lack of work during the COVID-19 pandemic, thought they could use the dowry money to get their daughter married.
As the pandemic ravages India, leading to lockdowns and school closures, it has resulted in an unexpected problem: underage girls being married off by their families as a way out of financial stress. India, the highest contributor to child marriages in the world as per a 2019 UNICEF report, is not alone in this current predicament. There has been a surge in child marriages in several other developing nations, including Nepal, Ethiopia and Malawi. A recent UNICEF report warns that the pandemic has put 10 million young girls around the world at risk of becoming child brides over the next decade.