Preventing child marriage during pandemic, a webinar organised by Actionaid, Aaina

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Bhubaneswar: The disaster Covid 19 is coming with unusual experience and as a pandemic never experienced before. With the intent to contain the spread of COVID-19, a nation-wide lockdown starting March 25th, 2020 was announced. The lockdown brought the usual life style, economic activity, livelihood options and many other important activities to a standstill. This may have helped limiting the health crisis but has posed a greater risk to life and livelihood of larger communities of the country. The situation has added to the miseries of the poor especially the migrant workers, with massive job losses and rising food insecurity. Such situation is again boost the child marriage situation which is evident from 29 child marriage cases reported from different districts of Odisha. Also the Childline India helpline received more than 92,000 calls asking for protection from abuse and violence in 11 days, a serious indication that the child right and protection is in threat.
Actionaid and AAINA hosted a webinar on ‘Preventing Child Marriage during Pandemic’ on 6th June 2020. The agenda of the webinar was to address the key challenges faced in the adolescent empowerment and child marriage issue during this pandemic and due to the lockdown, the efforts of the government and the reality at the grassroots by bringing forth various key stakeholders involved in tackling the situation on the ground.
Sipra Jha Heads of Asia Engagement Girls Not Bride, Lopamudra Tripathy Communication for Development Specialist at UNICEF, Sandhyabati Pradhan, Chairperson, Odisha State Commission for Protection of Child Rights (OSCPCR) and Pritikant Panda, Programme Manager joined as panelists in the webinar along with youth champions and members of Balya Bibaha Pratirodh Manch like Asha Sahu from Ganjam, Radharanee Mishra from Nayagarh and Bishnupriya Pradhan from Kandhamal those said no to child marriage and worked to sensitize adolescents against child marriage. Ghasiram Panda National Manager, Ending child marriage programme Actionaid and Sneha Mishra, AAINA set the context and facilitated the discussion. 135 participants from different CSOs and child protection functionaries from different States participated in the webinar. The key challenges and recommendations emerged out of the session will be further shared with the concerned authorities for vital measures.
The participants have participated in a poll where some questions like whether this pandemic will increase the rate of child marriage and the cause behind this and 93 percent respondents stated yes as response. Most viewed economic and livelihood burden as the major cause, lack of surveillance, closure of schools and scope to avoid social pressure for feast are other causes. On extensive engagement of frontline workers in COVID management will encourage child marriage situation is also supported by 91 percent participants. Many think that they are getting less time for tracking child marriage situation and also they have shifted their priorities. On what kind of strategy the Child protection Institution should adopt to curb child marriage during pandemic situation Strengthening family through linking them with income generation and social security schemes. Is there a need to develop district specific separate action plan in the context of COVID to address the issue of child marriage? 95 percent participants felt the requirement and the priorities in the action plan for engaging with stakeholders like PRIs, traditional leaders and adolescents. What kind of convergence and collaboration among the GO – NGOs required for effective engagement to end child marriage. Participants opined for Involving in developing and facilitating the separate action plan and engage with children and family through counseling.

Youth champions those said no to their child marriage and now sensitize people to end child marriage as members of Nirbhayakadhi in Ganjam and Balya bibaha pratirodh manch in Nayagarh and Kandhamal shared how they are engaging with adolescents and other community members to end child marriage during this pandemic situation. In this lock down situation many families planned to go ahead with child marriages as they think it will be less expensive during this restricted time. However they intervened into the matter with help of CMPOs and other child protection functionaries and are able to stop some of child marriage incidents.

Shipra Jha from Girls not bride stated that the research done by UNFPA with help from Johns Hopkins University and come out with statistics that in next ten years 13 million child marriages and 7 million unintended pregnancy will be happen universally after this pandemic situation. This is alarming and we need to work with communities by knowing their situation and aware them to not go with child marriage. Whilst it is too early to tell how COVID-19 is affecting the incidence of child marriage, experience from past crisis and other acute emergencies strongly suggests that girls and women will be disproportionately affected, particularly amongst the poorest and socially marginalised groups. Funds for child protection and other public health programme may go for COVID responses and it will hamper the initiatives to end child marriage. Now migrant workers are returning to the respective states and less livelihood option may raise child marriage incidents. There are expected spikes after lock down, so need to make people aware on this. In many households do not have access to internet or television and also girls are not access to smart phone, so need to reach them differently about their right and reproductive health. This situation will continue for a longer time so need proper dialogue with others for regular intervention with different media. There was also increase in early marriages due to girls’ increased school dropout rates.6 School closures will also have long-term impacts on girls’ futures, particularly for poorer and more remote families, if they are unable to return after prolonged absence, as education may become unaffordable due to economic distress or due to girls being married.

Lopamudra Tripathy from UNICEF stated that patriarchy and value of girl child can be looking as a broader context when we see the context of child marriage. We recognise girl as honour of our family and in other hand think her as a liability. We have experienced aftermath of many disasters where child abuse cases including child marriage issues increased. This pandemic situation put us in an extraordinary unusual situation. Now the reverse migration is happening where the distress migrants again returned to their villages and in complete poverty. They are in extreme psycho-social pressure. Child marriages incidents are happening but may be reporting of such incidents are not done properly. Continuation of education is now not possible and drop out of girls may rise which will again increase elopement and child marriage incidents. The post COVID situation is going to show a very dismal picture. Such disaster makes vulnerable families more vulnerable. Poverty is a major factor for child marriage and post COVID situation made those family more poor and child marriage situation may increase. There is a need to give psycho-social support to those families. There is a requirement for more and more awareness drive with socio behavioural change communication method. Instead of aggressive implementation of law the judicious implementation of law is required. Community engagement by including caste leaders, opinion leaders is essential. Theatre of the oppressed, transformation dialogue needs to be used to know views of adolescents and youths. Community radios should be used to reach to communities.

Sandhyabati Pradhan the Chairperson OCPCR stated that lack of engagement with young boys and girls is a major issue. Economic crisis at family level and social norm is leading to child marriage. Dropout rate may increase after the lock down period and we need to engage with children to send back them to school to continue their education. Massive awareness generation at panchayat level is required to reach to the communities to end child marriage. Poverty eradication through different income generation scheme will help to lessen the vulnerability of poverty induced child marriages. Counselling to parents and adolescents is vital & we would work on this with help from CSOs and other functionaries. The result of the participants view through poll would help us in designing our strategy to further deal with child marriage situation.

Pritikant Panda, Programme Manager OSCPS stated that we are taking stock of the situation on daily basis and child protection structures are most effectively activated now in this Pandemic situation. We are using alternative media to collect information. The child protection system is active to address the issue of child protection with help from CWC & DCPU. They are responding to the calls and effectively addressing the issue. Now there is a need to work in collaboration with CSOs to work at gram panchayat level, by activating child clubs. Social communication activities and linkage with different schemes and programmes in convergence with different departments will be effective to deal with such issue.

Participants shared their concerns and give suggestions to not discriminate girl child, to continue girl education with no dropout, to give them equal opportunities to income, to engage teachers to interact with adolescents through life skill education, to make people aware about child marriage prohibition officials and functionaries, to make girl aspirational so that they can say no to their child marriage.

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