As the global death toll from the novel coronavirus nears one million, there is yet another distressing consequence of the pandemic: the growth in both child trafficking and marriage in India.
According to the BBC, Childline, a children's helpline, has reported a 17 percent increase in distress calls related to forced marriages over June and July compared to last year.
Though the legal age to get married in the southern Asian nation is 18 years old, child marriage is nevertheless still a common practice that has only become more prevalent as families scramble to make ends meet amid rising deaths and unemployment numbers. Not only does marrying off a daughter create one less mouth to feed, but parents have also expressed nervousness at the dearth of eligible prospects as young men continue to get laid off as a result of the pandemic.
There are other considerations at play. For example, parents of the bride are expected to pay for a lavish wedding. With coronavirus restrictions, the celebrations are legally required to be smaller — and therefore cheaper.
"It was easier, cheaper and they could get away with inviting very few people," explained Manisha Biraris, the assistant commissioner for Women and Child Welfare in Maharashtra state.
Another alleged factor that has spurred the rise of child marriage is the lockdowns — or more specifically, school closures. While education is celebrated as a central tenet in the fight against the abhorrent practice, activists warn that quarantine measures have forced hundreds of millions of children out of school. Worse still, girls in poorer parts of India are the worst affected.
It is not just forced marriages that have seen increases. There has been an increase in levels of child trafficking — another practice technically illegal in the country but nevertheless widespread.
One man heartbreakingly confessed that he sent his son to work out of necessity. The father explained that he could no longer find work as a rickshaw driver and had no income to feed his family.
"My children had not eaten for two days," he said.
"I volunteered myself to the trafficker, but he said nimble fingers were needed for this work and I was of no use to him. I had almost no choice but to send my son away.""The number of children we have rescued has more than doubled from last year," noted Suresh Kumar, head of NGO Centre Direct, an organization that has been fighting child trafficking for more than 25 years.
"Villages have emptied out and the past months have seen the traffickers grow stronger and make use of the lockdown which has stretched authorities and the police," Kumar added.
Fortunately, the government has taken note of the problem and recently passed a more stringent law punishing human traffickers in the hopes that it will stem the rising numbers.