Bengal’s child marriage, trafficking menaces spill over into cities, too

Cases rising among families pushed further into COVID-induced poverty despite state government’s welfare schemes, say social activists

The Bengal government runs two welfare schemes — Kanyashree and Rupashree — to prevent underage marriages and to promote girls’ education. (Representational image)

Pinki (name changed) cleared her Class 10 board exam last month and was admitted to a higher secondary school.

The 16-year-old girl from Bishnupur, a southern suburb of Kolkata, was looking forward to a new academic session, keen to further her education. Her father, a daily wage earner, and mother, a homemaker, however, had different plans.

As the family’s income dropped following the outbreak of the COVID pandemic, the couple decided to marry off their daughter to somewhat ease their financial hardship. The teenager is the second of the couple’s three daughters. The elder one is already married.

They planned the marriage at her aunt’s house in Budge Budge, another Kolkata suburb, far away from their own house, to avoid calling attention to the underage marriage. However, some social activists in the area got wind of the plan and tipped off the police.  Just hours before the teenager was to tie the knot, a team from Maheshtala police station rescued her from her aunt’s place, on August 3.

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As the marriage was not solemnised, the police did not arrest anyone. But they insisted on an undertaking from the girl’s parents and her aunt that they would not marry her off until she turned 18, and that they would allow her to pursue her education, said an officer at the police station.

On hearing about the incident, some of the girl’s neighbours have decided to support her education.

Spurt in cases

Not everyone is as lucky as Pinki. Bengal has witnessed a spurt in child marriage and child trafficking cases due to pandemic-induced poverty, claimed NGOs working to prevent the menaces.

Also read: ‘Red Volunteers’ make a mark amid COVID crisis in West Bengal

According to data from the Childline India Foundation, till May this year, there were 68 cases of child marriage in West Midnapore district alone. The figure during the corresponding period last year was 57.

In neighbouring East Midnapore district, the state Social Welfare Department detected 12 cases of child marriage in June this year alone.

The problem is not restricted to backward districts like West Midnapore or East Midnapore. As the Pinki case showed, the menace has spread even to cities. So much so that Kolkata police recently started an advocacy and awareness drive in various localities of the city to prevent child marriages.

Welfare schemes

What worries policymakers most is that the spike has been witnessed despite the state government running two welfare schemes to prevent underage marriages and promote girls’ education.

The government, under its Kanyashree scheme, provides an annual scholarship of ₹1,000 to unmarried girls aged 13-18 years enrolled in classes VIII-XII in government recognised regular or equivalent open school or vocational/technical training courses. Under the scheme, it also provides a one-time financial assistance of ₹25,000 when girls turn 18, provided they are engaged in an academic or occupational pursuit, and are unmarried at the time.

Under the Rupashree scheme, the state government provides a one-time financial grant of ₹25,000 for economically stressed families at the time of their adult daughters’ marriages.

“The pandemic-induced economic distress is so acute that even such welfare schemes are proving to be not enough deterrents to dissuade distressed parents from marrying off their underaged daughters,” said an official with the Department of Women and Child Development and Social Welfare.

Child trafficking cases

Along with child marriage, there has also been a rise in cases of child trafficking. Last month, police rescued five children aged between eight months and six years, busting a child trafficking racket in Bankura district. A school principal, teacher and their associates were arrested for allegedly operating the racket.

Per data compiled by the Bachpan Bachao Andolan (BBA), the non-profit founded by Nobel laureate Kailash Satyarthi, between April 2020 and June 2021, around 9,000 children were rescued from various parts of the country as they were being trafficked.

“As more and more people are pushed into poverty during the pandemic, incidents of both child marriage and child trafficking have increased,” said Prasanjit Mandal of Sundarban Foundation. The NGO had, earlier this month, rescued a girl who was trafficked from the delta region after being promised a job by some human traffickers.

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