Swift action by police and district administration stops child marriages in Mirzapur and Sonbhadra districts of Uttar Pradesh. But non-profits and activists warn such incidents will only rise due to the COVID19 pandemic.
Mirzapur, Uttar Pradesh
On July 2, an anonymous phone call tipped off the district administration of Mirzapur in Uttar Pradesh about a child marriage. The caller informed Praveen Kumar, the district magistrate, about a minor girl being married off in a village in Lalganj area of the district.
Without losing any time, a team of officials led by Shakthi Tripathi, district probation officer, and child protection officers Ramesh, Pooja Maurya, Shailendra Singh and Rajlakshmi Yadav, along with the Lalganj police reached the location. The police arrested Bhanuprasad Shukla, the ‘groom’, and his party of six. Shukla is believed to be 38 or 40 years old. Meanwhile, the girl, belonging to the Kol tribe, is only 12-13 years old.
On interrogating the ‘groom’, he confessed that he had paid the 13-year-old girl’s family one lakh rupees to marry her. This makes it a case of human trafficking, too.
“When we reached the village, we learnt that the girl was a student of class eight. She had no idea who she was marrying or where she would be going after the wedding,” Shakthi Tripathi, district probation officer, Mirzapur, told Gaon Connection.
Further investigation found that the 38-year-old man and his male companions had come from near the India-Nepal border. “There was not a single woman amongst them. According to the villagers, the girl belonged to the adivasi Kol community. The boy was a Shukla, from an upper caste,” Tripathi pointed out. “We will use the strictest of laws including POSCO, to punish the criminals,” she added.
This isn’t the only case of child marriage and human trafficking that has surfaced in the pandemic. A number of organisations and activists working in this sector have been warning against a rise in child marriages in India due to the pandemic. As families have lost their livelihoods and girls have dropped out of the education system (due to the lack of access to the internet and smartphones for online classes), several teenage girls are being married off. There are reports of a rise in child trafficking too.
“Definitely child marriages in lockdown and pandemic situation is a serious concern, as are cases of trafficking,” Subhashree Raptan, programme co-ordinator with Goranbose Gram Bikash Kendra (GGBK), Sundarbans, West Bengal, which works on anti-human trafficking and sexual abuse, told Gaon Connection.
“In the marginalised communities even when a child marriage is stopped, follow up mechanism and monitoring is very weak and as a result there are instances of the child being married off once the authorities have left the place,” Raptan said.
On the same day when the Mirzapur district administration was tipped off on July 2, about 115 kilometres away, the police station in Obra, in Sonbhadra district, also received an anonymous phone call. The caller tipped off the police that a child wedding was about to take place at a village under its jurisdiction.
A police team, headed by Abhay Singh, the inspector in charge, reached the village and stopped the marriage between a minor girl and a much older man. The police arrested the groom, Sanjay Baiga and his father Chote Lal Baiga. Both are in jail. The girl’s parents have been counselled not to marry off their daughter till she was of legal age.
As per the Indian government’s Child Marriage Restraint Act, 1929, a boy has to be 21-year-old and girl 18-year-old for solemnising of the marriage. But that hasn’t stopped child marriages in the country, especially in the low-income group families that are the hardest hit in the pandemic.
Last September, Gaon Connection did a ground report on child marriages in West Bengal, which reported a sharp increase in the COVID19 pandemic. Between March 2020 and August 2020, at least 119 child marriage cases were recorded alone in Cooch Behar district of the state.
The tribal communities, especially in remote villages, are vulnerable to human trafficking. It is no secret that children from these areas are often ‘married off’ and sent to Rajasthan, Nepal, Haryana, Punjab, etc. The poverty in these areas are exploited by middlemen who pay a lakh or two to desperate parents, offer to bear the cost of the entire ‘wedding’ and take the girls away to a life of bonded labour and sexual exploitation.
“Between March 2020 and March 2021, twelve child marriages were prevented in Sonbhadra district,” Amrendra Pautsyayan, Sonbhadra district probation officer, told Gaon Connection. The year before (2019-2020), five child marriages were stopped before they could go through, he added. “The rise in cases is worrying. The pandemic has increased the incidence of child marriage but we are working hard to stop this ill practice,” Pautsyayan said.
Unlike Sonbhadra district, in Mirzapur the cases of child marriages coming to light have been few and far between. “From March 2019 to March 2020, we stopped one child marriage. There has not been a single case between March 2020 and March this year. Now only one child marriage case came to light, that happened on July 2, and we stopped it,” Pooja Maurya, child protection officer, Mirzapur, told Gaon Connection.
According to Sangeeta Sharma, member of the child welfare committee, Lucknow, when money is involved and such young children are involved, the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act comes into play. “It [July 2 child marriage in Mirzapur for which Rs one lakh was paid] is clearly a case of child trafficking,” she told Gaon Connection.
Raptan stressed on the need to activate and strengthen the role of Village Level Child Protection Committees, Block level Child Protection Committees and the functioning of Integrated Child Protection Scheme (ICPS) in order to check such incidents. “The Trafficking in Persons (Prevention, Care and Rehabilitation) Bill, 2021 can be helpful when it’s a comprehensive bill that talks about different forms of trafficking including forced marriage, child marriage etc,” she said. The Centre has recently invited suggestions for this draft bill.