During the first two months of the lockdown in India, World Vision’s Anti-child trafficking project in the state of West Bengal stopped 13 cases of child marriages
In one case, the World Vision team got there just minutes before the marriage was made official. The 14-year girl was being quietly dressed and made-up for her wedding. In moments, she would have been presented to her husband-to-be – a man she had never met. Within days, World Vision India staff received another call – this time, a 17-year-old was to be married.
Bring on the Hena Girls
Few marriages could be stopped without the real heroes in this story – members of local volunteer and child protection groups like the “Hena Girls Power Group”. These groups are guided by World Vision staff and meet on a regular basis. Participants learn about children’s rights and the importance of protecting them. They learn about the government hotline number to call when a child is in danger.
Members of the Hena Girl Power group in January, before the pandemic and lockdown. World Vision forms such groups to empower adolescent girls to protect themselves and their peers from trafficking, child marriage and other gender-based violence. Photo: Neola D’Souza
“The Hena Girls and members of other community groups are often the first to be aware of the vulnerable families in their midst – and girls at imminent risk,” says World Vision India’s Sandip Bhowmick, who specializes in the prevention of child marriage and trafficking. “When anything happens, they call us and let us know.”
When it comes to stopping forced marriage, girls’ empowerment groups provide intelligence, reconnaissance and communication. They keep their ears open for conversations in the community. They confide in one another about developments at home. They hear adults talking at night, about plans for their sisters – or themselves.
And more powerful advocates for girl’s rights you’re unlikely to find anywhere else in the world. Often, members of the group join World Vision staff to meet with parents who’ve chosen to pull their girls out of school in favour of work.
Sandip (right) with members of the Hena Girls Power group in Basanti, India, in January. Community groups like these, strong in their understanding of children’s rights and how to protect them, have been critical in helping World Vision India stop marriages during COVID-19. Photo: Neola D’Souza
In India, child marriage is tragically common at the best of times. But the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown have forced both World Vision and small community groups to be more alert than ever. The local MenCare group – a gathering of men supporting each other to be better, more caring husbands and fathers – also have their eyes open.
Sandip works with the Men Care groups in Basanti (photographed before the pandemic) helping them learn to identify various gender discriminatory practices in their families and communities and find ways to change them. The group is another preventative tool when it comes to child marriage. Photo: Neola D’Souza
“When they call us to report a child in danger of marriage, our first question is ‘Have you informed Childline’?” says Sandip, referring to India’s child help phone line. “That way, there is more pressure on the police to also respond to the call. We go with the police to resolve the case or stop the marriage from happening. We’ve had to be especially careful during the pandemic, to do it without drawing a crowd during COVID-19.”
According to Childline, the helpline received more than 92,000 calls for protection and violence in the first 11 days of the lockdown alone. Protection from abuse can include emotional, sexual and physical abuse, trafficking, abandonment and child marriage. And that’s just from the children who knew about the hotline, understood the need to call, or could get to a cell phone in time.
The challenge of COVID weddings
Child marriages in India are on the rise
during the coronavirus pandemic. In some cases, families hadn’t considered arranging marriages of their daughters too young. But then the food ran out and there was no money to buy more.
The undeniable incentive of paying for a tiny wedding under COVID 19-regulations, instead of a massive one at other times, is also a factor. Under the dowry system, the expectations placed on brides’ families to pay for large weddings can be crippling for poor families. That’s on top of the actual dowry to be paid to the groom’s family, which normally gets higher as the girl gets older.
Recently, the UN reported that progress made on preventing child marriage in countries such as India was being reversed, due to challenges heaped on by a global pandemic and its lockdowns. So, governments, community groups and World Vision teams have had their work cut out for them.
Helping make marriage less necessary
In addition to intercepting weddings and counselling families, World Vision India has been working around the clock to support families during the COVID-19 pandemic. A tough, destitute home situation will persist unless they receive help. In some cases, children run away, exposing them to the ever-present threat of child traffickers.
Sandip on his way to the Sundarban islands to provide COVID-19 food relief to families and hygiene kits to police personnel as part of the COVID-19 response in the Basanti district. Photo: World Vision India
World Vision India teams continue to work tirelessly, offering care and support for children and their families facing untenable circumstances. In the first three months of the COVID-19 pandemic alone, they provided:
- 559,545 people with cash vouchers, meaning parents can feed their children while stimulating the local economy
- 419,046 people with food support for their families
- 518,628 masks for communities, health workers and health facilities
- 706,937 people with information through campaigns on COVID-19 prevention
- 75,545 children with support through child protection programming
To advocate for children facing all forms of abuse, including child marriage, World Vision India is pressing the Indian government to take special measures to protect children during the COVID-19 crisis. Their recommendations include measures like these, to name a few:
World Vision research warns an additional four million girls are at risk of child marriage in the next two years because of the COVID-19 pandemic. These children face dangerous threats, but they have incredible strength and resiliency to overcome these dark challenges to survive, recover and build a new future. Learn how you can help children move from victim to survivor --- and from survivor to overcomer.
World Vision India team member Debu Patra, working with the Sapna Girls Power group before the COVID-19 pandemic. “Through these groups, girls are learning how to fight for their freedom and their rights,” he says. Photo: Neola D’Souza
- Prioritize and identify the most vulnerable children, including children of daily wage workers who are now unemployed
- Provide child-friendly outreach messages, to prevent abuse of children in distress due to COVID-19
- Provide critical services and alternative livelihood support for families