In the thick of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, the parents of a 13-year-old girl in a remote village of Bangarupalem mandal in Andhra Pradesh’s Chittoor district frantically searched for medical help as the teen went into labour. However, the couple’s plea to get her admitted to a local nursing home was met with a haunting refrain: “We are helpless; it is COVID time.”
After much struggle, they got through to the police. Soon, a group of child rights activists swung into action, ensuring a safe delivery for the girl. Her 24-year-old alcoholic husband, however, remained largely indifferent to her needs. Now, three years later, her story, like countless others, has faded into oblivion.
Child marriage remains a harsh reality for over 100 forested villages in Bangarupalem, Palamaner, Gangavaram, Baireddipalle, V.Kota and Kuppam mandals in Chittoor district, robbing young girls of their childhood, denying them access to education and opportunities, and a possibly fulfilling future. The consequences are far-reaching, impacting not just the young brides, who are prematurely thrust into adulthood with limited choices and independence, but also perpetuating the cycles of poverty and gender inequality.
A majority of the families in these villages caught in this vortex of child marriage are agricultural workers, eking out a living as migrants in the neighbouring States of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. Most of the settlements are nestled within the thick forests of the Kaundinya Sanctuary located in the Palamaner-Kuppam forest ranges of Chittoor district, alongside national highways leading to Bengaluru in Karnataka and Krishnagiri in Tamil Nadu.
A 2022 study by NGO Child Rights and You (CRY) found that about 78% of child brides in Andhra Pradesh become mothers in their teens. Though there is a decline in the number of child marriages compared to the previous year, the prevalence in the State is as high as 29.3% of all marriages, the study revealed.
Fear of education, empowerment
Until about a decade ago, child marriages in the Chittoor district were often concealed in the annual Maha Sivaratri festivities and took place at Shiva temples. However, efforts on the part of the district administration and the police have gradually reduced the intensity of this practice over the years.
Nevertheless, fears persist among economically backward families. They worry that if a girl is educated, dowry demands would increase. The rationale is that as the girl’s education level goes up, the greater the expectation would become for the prospective groom’s qualifications, resulting in more dowry demand. Another apprehension is that the educated girl herself might look for a match and possibly elope, thereby ‘risking family honour’.
Eradicating child marriage demands a multi-faceted approach involving legal reforms, community awareness, and support systems to protect child rights.
Crisis of commute
A 2022 study conducted by the non-profit Rural Organisation for Poverty Eradication Services (ROPES), based in Bangarupalem mandal, working towards the eradication of child marriages, revealed a key factor that keeps parents from sending their daughters to college in urban areas—the lack of transportation facilities. For instance, there is only one government junior college in Bangarupalem mandal headquarters, covering a radius of approximately 25 km.
Girls from remote villages such as Mandipeta Kotur, Musalimadugu, Keeramanda, CJF Colony, Tekumanda, and a dozen other hamlets must travel 8-12 km in autorickshaws, in addition to navigating jungle paths, to reach Bangarupalem town. For higher education, they need to travel either to Chittoor, which is 45 km away or to Palamaner, 30 km away.
Extensive and different means of travel would result in girls returning home late in the evening, exposing them to various risks, like wild elephants, amplifying parental concerns for their daughters’ safety.
In July 2020, Shankar (name changed), a resident of Keeramanda, nearly 25 km from Bangarupalem, along with his 14-year-old daughter, was returning home around 7 p.m. after buying provisions when they came across a herd of wild elephants. They ran in different directions, and it was not before midnight that they eventually reunited.
“I found her hiding in the bushes and trembling with fear. After that incident, I was scared to send my child to school alone. I had no option but to get her married to my brother-in-law, who is working as a security guard in Bengaluru,” Shankar shares.
Most instances such as this often go unnoticed and, therefore, unreported. Girls above 15 years are more vulnerable to child marriage, says a police officer seeking anonymity.
“After they leave high school, nobody bothers if they passed or failed. The parents claim that they have sent the girls to Bengaluru [in Karnataka], Vellore, or Vaniyambadi [both in Tamil Nadu] for Intermediate education. But, in reality, many of them end up as child brides,” the officer adds.
“Better transport facilities in the forested villages and the establishment of a government college in Bangarupalem would help improve the situation,” says ROPES chairperson K. Dhanasekharan. Presently, ROPES provides financial assistance to over 1,200 children and monitors their academic progress.
Schemes and surveillance
For decades, the prospect of higher education hardly, if ever, crossed the minds of parents in these villages as concerns over dowry overwhelmed them. However, government schemes such as ‘Amma Vodi’ and ‘Gorumudda’ have played a pivotal role in reducing the incidence of child marriages.
The Andhra Pradesh government started the Amma Vodi scheme for the 2019-20 academic year to encourage parents below the poverty line to send their children to school and college by depositing ₹15,000 (after deductions, it is ₹13,000) into the bank account of the student’s mother or recognised guardian. The scheme applies to all students, irrespective of the number of children in their family, whether studying in recognised government, private aided or private unaided schools, junior colleges, or residential schools/ junior colleges in the State. Gorumudda is the government’s midday meal scheme in schools.
In Bangarupalem mandal, ROPES has constituted Child-Friendly Accountability Mechanism (CFAM) clubs in 32 hamlets with SC and ST populations. Currently, over 1,200 children between 13 and 17 years are members. Apart from this, several youth clubs have been formed to identify the problem areas in these villages. These clubs play a crucial role in identifying girls at risk of child marriages.
“They serve as an excellent surveillance mechanism. When a girl fails to attend classes for more than three days in a row, they report the matter directly to the authorities concerned with child rights. They are well trained to use helpline number 1098 and Dial 100,” says A. Hemalatha, a project officer (child protection) at ROPES.
Stopping child marriages is not an easy task, say officials of the Integrated Child Development Society (ICDS). They recount cases where the parents from both sides posed a volley of questions to the authorities, who decided to intervene. Some of the questions were: “If the girl elopes with someone else, who will bring her back to us?” “If we perform the girl’s marriage after she turns 18, who will pay for the dowry?”.
In some cases, families, fearing surveillance and detection, prefer arranging the weddings in village temples of remote areas in neighbouring Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, say local child rights activists. “Upon returning to their villages, such cases are often overlooked. The reason is that once the wedding ceremony is over, taking action could put the child bride in trouble,” explains an activist.
Under The Child Marriage Restraint Act, 1929, “whoever performs, conducts or directs any child marriage shall be punishable with simple imprisonment which may extend to three months and shall also be liable to fine unless he proves that he has reason to believe that the marriage was not a child-marriage”. The penal provisions do not invalidate the fact of marriage, nor do the penal provisions apply to a child.
Deputy Superintendent of Police (Palamaner) N. Sudhakar Reddy says that in the last six months, six cases have been booked under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offenses (POCSO) Act, 2012, to prevent child marriages in the western mandals of Chittoor district. The Act clearly defines a child as any person below the age of 18 years.
“Upon receiving complaints about youths eloping with minor girls, we take strict action. Our Mahila police teams are engaged in surveillance duty against child marriages and conducting awareness programmes in high schools and junior colleges,” he said, explaining the measures they have been taking to contain the menace of cases of minor girls eloping.
To create awareness among economically disadvantaged families regarding child marriages, field-level staff regularly publicise harrowing experiences associated with this social ill. During counselling sessions with parents, they share instances of casualties among child marriage victims during pregnancy.
“Only last year, a 25-year-old youth in the Bangarupalem region got married to a 16-year-old pregnant girl in Tamil Nadu. The girl died due to complications during delivery a few months later. Although the baby, a girl, survived, the father abandoned it. The infant then came under the protection of her maternal grandparents,” shares a child rights volunteer.
Over the past three years, a senior judge and secretary of Chittoor District Legal Services Authority (DLSA), I. Karuna Kumar, has visited numerous hamlets and delivered lectures on the importance of education and the need to shun child marriages.
He has also requested Andhra Pradesh State Road Transport Corporation authorities to operate buses on the forested roads, passing through the Government High School at Ragimanupenta village in Bangarupalem mandal, the only high school within a 15-km radius. Several parents have also approached the judge to initiate steps to establish a junior college in this village.
They don’t want their daughters’ lives to turn out like that of Sevanti, now 23, from Srinivasapuram village. She has two girls and a boy now, but her dreams of getting a college education and a paid job remain quashed. “But my parents forced me to drop out after class 10. At 15, I was married off to a man 10 years older. My life is now monotonous. The only constant is the abuse from my husband,” she says.