The coronavirus pandemic, which erupted early in 2020, prompted a spate of illegal child marriages and child labor in several parts of India.
Reports said thousands of poor families “exploited” the lockdowns to illegally marry off their daughters, aged between 11 and 14 years.
The United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund or UNICEF has warned that the progress achieved in past decades in terms of child protection could be erased by the consequences of the pandemic.
A report on the Catholic AsiaNews site said that in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh the situation has become “truly serious.”
The report, quoting government data, said that even before the pandemic more than 29 percent of women aged 20 to 24 were married when they were minors.
Of the number, 12.6 percent got pregnant the first time between the ages of 15 and 19.
According to the UNICEF, a third of the world’s estimated 223 million child brides are from India, of which some 102 million – or every second victim – were married off before they were 15 years old.
India, however, has signed up to adopt UNICEF’s Sustainable Developmental Goals of eliminating the practice of child marriage by 2030.
Venkataswamy Rajarapu, general manager of Street2School, a program sponsored by Italian NGO Care&Share, said cultural and economic factors must be considered to understand the situation.
He said that in rural and marginalized communities, girls are married at the age of 14 because their parents were also married at the same age.
Families, however, also do it for economic reasons, said Rajarapu. He said that with the pandemic, the “dowry costs less.”
“Because many parents have been left without work, they agree to marry their daughters now because prices could increase,” he said, adding that the younger the girl is married, the less a family has to spend.
“The fear that girls may marry someone of a different caste or another religion is also an important factor,” said Rajarapu.
He said a girl could be accused of dishonoring the family and many young people commit suicide or are killed for it.
Poverty also pushes families to send their children out to work.
“Some children are sent to cotton plantations because with their small hands it is easier for them to pick the flowers without ruining them,” he said.
The pandemic and the ensuing lockdown of schools made things easier for families to send children to work.
“Not only are children sent to work, but they become the object of the anxieties and fears of adults,” said Rajarapu in the AsiaNews interview.
“Frustrated by the lack of work, parents see children at home as an additional burden, and many are also physically abused,” he said.
There are about 12.9 million Indian children engaged in work between the ages of 7 to 17 years old, according to the International Labor Organization.
Millions of Indian girls and boys are going to work every day in quarries and factories, or selling cigarettes on the street, said the UN agency.
The non-government Campaign Against Child Labor noted that the pandemic has pushed more children into child labor, including its worst forms.