By Debarshi Dasgupta
The Straits Times
He heard a girl sob on the line. "Please rescue me immediately or they will kill me," the 12-year-old told him.
"My mother has forced me to get married but I want to study," she pleaded, using her 19-year-old husband's phone on the sly.
A coordinator for Childline India Foundation, which manages a government-supported national helpline for children in distress, Mr Sukla knew he had no time to lose.
He called up concerned government officers and promptly left his office in Cuttack in the state of Odisha.
Born to poor and illiterate parents, the girl had been married on Aug 12 and even sexually assaulted by her husband.
Mr Sukla reached the girl's in-laws' house in Dandapadi, a remote village in the district, after travelling for nearly five hours.
She was rescued that night - the family showed no resistance, as Mr Sukla was accompanied by local police - and subsequently placed in a government-supported shelter.
It was one of the 13 child marriage cases Mr Sukla has had to intervene in since March 20 this year.
"We are getting more cases of child marriage since the lockdown," he told The Straits Times.
The Covid-19 pandemic has prompted a spike in child marriages across India, as struggling families, many rendered jobless and pushed further back into poverty, resort to marrying off their girls to reduce their financial burden.
Several districts have reported an increase in child marriage attempts, with many other cases suspected to have gone unreported.
Dr S. Diwakar, the district child protection officer for Mysuru in Karnataka, said his district reported 123 such instances between mid-March and July, compared to around 75 for the same period last year.
Of the recent cases, 110 were stopped by the authorities. India went into a nationwide lockdown on March 25, with gradual relaxation of measures since early June.
"During the lockdown, many families attempted to marry off their girls, thinking government offices would be shut with only emergency services running," he said.
"And now, families are conducting marriages very early in the morning or at midnight at temples, expecting not to be caught," added Dr Diwakar.
Some families have also exploited the economic downturn to conduct low-cost weddings.
Tamil Nadu's Tiruvannamalai district too recorded an increase in child marriage attempts. In June, the district reported 35 such instances, a new monthly peak since January 2017.
Between April and July this year, Tiruvannamalai recorded 83 child marriage cases, compared to 67 in the same period last year.
Dr Christina T. Dorthy, the district's social welfare officer, told ST that all the 83 cases were stopped by the authorities. "Covid has given a shelter to mask these marriages.
"It is under-the-blanket kind of a thing," she said, adding that the authorities intervened in some cases to find weddings about to be conducted with no arrangements such as pandals (a fabric shelter) or even the presence of guests.
Data from Childline India Foundation indicates its representatives had to intervene in 14,775 cases of prevention of child marriages between January and July this year.
While interventions in the same period last year were higher at 17,181, child marriage prevention cases in the non-lockdown months this year were up by around 17 to 21 per cent compared to those last year. This includes the months of June and July, which saw the lockdown being relaxed progressively.
This trend of an increase in child marriages has been exacerbated by schools remaining shut since March. Many poor families relied on government schools to keep their children engaged as well as fed through mid-day meals that were served there.
Without this source of sustenance, families are now being forced to send their sons out for work and have their daughters married.
"Every out-of-school girl is a potential child bride," Ms Ananya Chakraborti, the chairman of the West Bengal Commission for Protection of Child Rights (WBCPCR), said, adding that increased poverty and joblessness have made such girls further vulnerable.
"It's like one-less-mouth-to-feed kind of thing," she added.
The WBCPCR launched a dedicated helpline for child marriages in June as concerns for young girls stuck in their homes mounted amid the pandemic and especially after Cyclone Amphan which caused widespread damage and fatalities in the region after making landfall on May 20.
The helpline had received reports of 41 child marriages up to Aug 19, of which nearly 90 per cent were stopped by the authorities.
Despite considerable progress, child marriage remains endemic in India, a country that accounts for one out of every three child brides in the world. According to 2019 data from Unicef, 102 of the 223 million child brides in India were married before they turned 15.
The most recent government data from 2015-16 states that 27 per cent of Indian women were married before the legal age of 18, while 20 per cent of men were married before the legal age of 21.
In Maharashtra, child marriages have been fuelled by a demand for labour amid a bumper sugarcane harvest.
"Many contractors are offering better rates for a pair of workers," said Mr Santosh Shinde, a child rights activist and former member of Maharashtra's State Commission for Protection of Child Rights.
The rates can vary between 150,000 to 300,000 rupees (S$2,785 to S$5,570) for around an eight-month working stint in the field.
Many poor families are using this opportunity to send their daughters along with boys from other families for this extended period for work after getting them married.
He added that more than 200 attempted cases of child marriage were reported between March and June in the state.
Nearly 95 per cent of these unions were, however, averted with help from the authorities.
The government is considering raising the minimum age for women to be legally wed and bring it at par with that for men, which is 21.
While welcoming this as a move that will bring gender parity, Dr Kriti Bharti, the managing trustee of Saarthi Trust, which works to prevent as well as annul child marriages, said it will not reduce instances of child marriage.
"People cannot wait until their girls are 18 to get them married. Why will they wait until 21?" she said.
Activists say reducing child marriages requires stronger law enforcement and further awareness, including on the harm it does to children.
Child marriages are known to lead to instances of domestic violence and even human trafficking, besides resulting in malnourished mothers and children.
"If there is a growing teenage girl sitting at home in the rural and semi-urban belt in India, people still think of her as a time bomb," said Ms Sudeshna Roy, a special consultant to WBCPCR.
"People are scared, people just want to get rid of her in some way or the other," she said, adding that this attitude is gradually changing with better awareness that has led to increased reporting of child marriages.
Besides children involved in these marriages, such as the girl mentioned at the beginning of this story, information about these weddings is often leaked to the authorities and activists by other children as well as locals in the area.
The Prohibition of Child Marriage Act prescribes punishment for "solemnising" as well as "promoting or permitting solemnisation of child marriages", but the number of cases filed and conviction rates remain poor.
According to latest available countrywide crime data from 2018, only 501 incidents were recorded by the police under this Act that year.
Of these, 368 cases were sent for trial and only two cases resulted in conviction.
The authorities also adopt a lenient approach in cases where they intervene before a marriage is solemnised.
On such occasions, families are let off with a written undertaking stating they will not attempt child marriage again. Follow-up care is undertaken to ensure the children are not married later but activists say some weddings still go ahead in greater secrecy despite this monitoring.
Families have to be prosecuted for even attempted child marriages to set a deterrent, according to Dr Bharti.
"The child marriage is aborted only because social activists or alert authorities show up. When people are booked for attempt to murder or rape, why not book for attempted child marriage?" she said.