Made in Crisis

COVID-19 is leading to a rise in child marriages in India

A recent report by The Wire revealed that the number of child marriages across India from June to October 2020 increased by over a third compared to the same period in 2019. Prakash Hatvalne / AP Photo
31 July, 2021

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.

The 15-year-old has been among the fortunate ones from Rajasthan’s Mavli district to have escaped this fate. But many others have not been as lucky. In the same district, at least twenty-five child marriages have taken place in the last two months, according to the local activists Usha Choudhary and Yogesh Vaishnav. The activists told me that most low-income families from this region believe they can lessen their financial burden by getting their daughters married sooner, with social-distancing measures allowing them to save money by having a small ceremony.