Mumbai, India
Thomson Reuters Foundation

When the police knocked on the door as 15-year-old Muskaan prepared to head to the temple in their village in northern India, the bride-to-be was distraught.

With a sick father and unemployed brother, Muskaan believed that getting married to a distant relative's son would alleviate the financial burden on her family and offer a better future. 

Yet a tip-off to the authorities in June by local activists concerned about a spike in early marriages during India's coronavirus lockdown led to Muskaan's wedding being called off, while her parents were charged under child marriage legislation.

"When my father fixed my marriage, I agreed," Muskaan, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, said by phone from her village in Jaunpur district in Uttar Pradesh. Yet she said she would have preferred to go to school if possible.

"There is no food. We live in one room. My father was worried for me and was crying," she said. "My marriage would have taken care of everything. Now they say I will have to wait for three years [until the legal age of marriage in India]."

India child marriage1

Krishna, 14, sits with her four-month-old baby Alok outside her house in a village near Baran, located in the north-western state of Rajasthan, on 21st January, 2013. Krishna was married to her husband Gopal when she was 11 and he was 13. Krishna had a very difficult delivery, losing lots of blood and remained in the hospital for several days. The legal age for marriage in India is 18, but marriages like these are common, especially in poor, rural areas where girls in particular, are married off young. PICTURE: Reuters/Danish Siddiqui/File photo.

After the COVID-19 pandemic brought industry to a halt and shut schools in March, activists and officials in parts of India from the southern state of Tamil Nadu to western Maharashtra observed an unexpected trend: child marriages were on the rise.

Before the outbreak, many early marriages revolved around public celebrations and huge dowries paid by the bride's family.

With schools closed and weddings taking place discreetly, officials fear that children - especially girls - are harder to reach, educate, and save from marriages that limit their future.

Yet India's lockdown's restrictions mean many jobless and struggling families are performing ceremonies on the cheap and forgoing payments as they seek to ease their economic hardship.

With schools closed and weddings taking place discreetly, officials fear that children - especially girls - are harder to reach, educate, and save from marriages that limit their future.

Early marriage makes it more likely that girls will drop out of school, and campaigners say it also increases the risks of slavery, domestic and sexual violence, and death in childbirth.

Of 223 million women and girls in India who were married off as children, almost half were wed before turning 15, according to statistics by the United Nations children's agency, UNICEF. 

UNICEF data from 2018 found that about 27 per cent of girls get married before they turn 18, down from 47 per cent a decade earlier. Yet advocates fear that progress may be at risk across rural India.

Thameem Unisa, a social welfare officer in Tamil Nadu, said the number of child marriages in two of the state's districts rose to 27 in June from five in March. Her team managed to prevent 50 marriages in this period but 24 still went ahead, she added.

"This is how it used to be 10 years ago," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. 

"We have given so much education and awareness...the movement [for girl child empowerment] is going backwards."

Officials at Childline, a toll-free emergency helpline for children funded by the federal government, said they had stopped 5,200 child marriages between March and May. They said it was not possible to compare data with previous years at this time.

India's child protection commission said there was no data to suggest a spike in child marriages during lockdown, but it had asked state governments to be more vigilant to the threat. 

The Prohibition of Child Marriage Act imposes a fine of 100,000 Indian rupees ($US1,535) and two years in prison for parents caught trying to marry off their underage children.

"Child marriage is a potential concern. We consider it as trafficking," said Priyank Kanoongo, chairman of the child rights commission. "Those who are vulnerable...should be mapped to link them to available government welfare schemes."

The federal women and children's ministry did not respond to repeated requests for data and comment.

India coronavirus migrant workers

Migrant workers walk towards a bus station along a highway with their families as they return to their villages, during a 21-day nationwide lockdown to limit the spreading of coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Ghaziabad, on the outskirts of New Delhi, on 29th March. PICTURE: Reuters/Adnan Abidi /File photo.

Millions of internal migrant workers have lost their jobs in recent months and returned home to villages from cities, vying for limited work and struggling to provide for their families.

Activists fear this may drive some men to capitalise on cheap weddings as a way to traffic girls for sex and labour.

Rolee Singh of the Dr Shambunath Singh Research Foundation in Uttar Pradesh - who had tipped off the police in Muskaan's case - said she had seen more families in villages not being asked for dowry, some even offering money to the girl's parents.

"Conflict at homes has gone up, daughters are not getting any attention, and schools and colleges are closed," she said. "[Girls] do not know right from wrong and are willing to leave on the promise of marriage. We fear a rise in trafficking."

The closure of schools across India since March has not only disrupted education but also advocacy around child marriage.

"A lot of work [on child marriage] was always a combination of keeping schools up and running and keeping girls in schools," said Puja Marwaha, head of the non-profit Child Rights and You.

"Conflict at homes has gone up, daughters are not getting any attention, and schools and colleges are closed. [Girls] do not know right from wrong and are willing to leave on the promise of marriage. We fear a rise in trafficking."

- Rolee Singh of the Dr Shambunath Singh Research Foundation in Uttar Pradesh

She said more parents had stopped marrying off their girls provided they were in school, which they saw as a "safe space".

The number of out-of-school girls across India aged 11 to 14 dropped to less than five per cent in 2018 compared with about 10 per cent a decade ago, according to a survey by the education non-profit Pratham.

Maharashtra is considering reopening residential schools to tackle an "unexpected" rise in child marriage, an official said. Authorities in the state stopped more than 100 such weddings from April to July but fear that many others went unreported. 

But education can only go so far, according to activists who said poverty exacerbated by the pandemic may make it more and more difficult for families to avoid marrying off their girls.

Muskaan's father knows this only too well.

"This village is not good...we fear for her safety...we have no money to feed her," said the 65-year-old, who has not been named in order to protect his daughter's identity. 

His daughter's wedding would have been performed without a dowry, a rare opportunity for the family to avoid taking out loans to pay the groom's parents and then falling into debt. 

"We are among the poorest here, nobody looks at us," he added. "What if I die? My daughter will be left on the road."