Communities in the ecologically fragile Sundarbans delta region are still reeling under the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change, say survivors and activists.
Shackled by poverty in a home that came under water when Cyclone Amphan barrelled into her village and left penniless by the pandemic, the hapless mother married off her 15-year-old daughter their story emblematic of the Covid-climate crisis in the Sundarbans that has seen a sharp rise in the number of child marriages.
It was May last year, recalled Rashmi Devi*. With only a tent as cover for her seven-member family following the super cyclone and no money for food, the marriage proposal for her young daughter seemed like a godsend. “We could barely manage one meal every day and the decision to get her married seemed right at the time. In my mind I thought there will be one less mouth to feed and she will get more than just salt and rice to eat,” the mother told PTI over the phone from Canning in the Sundarbans that falls in West Bengal’s South 24 Parganas district.
Sixteen months later, the decision doesn’t seem so right. The family is still in dire straits and her son-in-law is behind bars on charges of dowry harassment. Rashmi’s* family is not the only one. Communities in the ecologically fragile Sundarbans delta region are still reeling under the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change, say survivors and activists.
According to the NGO Goranbose Gram Bikash Kendra, 159 child marriages have been reported in the South 24 Parganas district since 2020. This includes 64 from January to August this year and 95 from 2020. In 2019, before the pandemic, 68 child marriages were recorded in the area.
“A number of areas in the region have been washed away due to the rise in water levels which has displaced a large number of people who were then forced to migrate due to financial insecurity and vulnerabilities. In the Sundarbans area, we saw the number of child marriages increase exponentially due to the pandemic and climate change effects,” said Subhasree Raptan of the NGO that works on issues of human trafficking, child rights and climate change impact.
In most cases, she said, agriculture has become unviable due to the increase in salinity of the water because of sea level rise. As a result, people try to marry off their young daughters, thinking it will help them get settled and also relieve them of their “burden”.
“Traffickers know this vulnerability and they exploit the situation. In the initial Covid days, a lot of information about child marriages was coming and also children were not going to school so it was adding up,” she said. Sixteen months after Cyclone Amphan, Rashmi* is still picking up the pieces of her life and wondering how did everything go so wrong.
“First the pandemic hit us and then Amphan. During the pandemic my husband who worked as a rickshaw puller lost his job and has been unable to find employment here since. After Amphan hit, our bamboo hut drowned. “We fled in just the tattered clothes we were wearing at that time. We tried to grab whatever we could in our hands when the floodwaters came. But there was not much that could be saved,” she said.
They are still living in a plastic tent. And her young daughter is far from being secure in her marital home. The mental harassment began soon after the marriage, she said.
“When my daughter heard her husband was sending her away to someone’s house she grew suspicious and contacted her family following which her husband was arrested and is still under custody,” Rashmi* said. To add to their continuing trauma, it has been raining incessantly in the last few days.
“The land we are on might submerge completely in water again. We don’t know where we will move then.” Cyclone Amphan, which made landfall in May last year near the India-Bangladesh border, was the costliest tropical cyclone on record for the north Indian Ocean with reported economic losses in India of approximately USD 14 billion. It resulted in the displacement of 2.4 million people in India, mostly in West Bengal and Odisha, a flagship UN report had said.
The Sundarbans region, which holds a vast mangrove forest, is said to be one of the worst affected regions in India due to climate change. It is largely situated in the South 24 Parganas districts at the southern end of West Bengal.
Anindit Roy Chowdhury, director of Programmes and Policy at Save the Children India, said it has been seen that climate change leading to natural disaster, migration and agrarian crisis has pushed more families into economic distress and increased the vulnerability of girls.
“The investment on girl child education and food shortage is affected and many families get their children (particularly girls) married. Working in the field, we have observed families making decisions about getting girl child married particularly in high risk disaster zones anticipating crisis in the household,” he said.
Sometimes, the young girls themselves take the decision to move out of their parental homes.
Like 16-year-old Esha* who decided to run away with a boy in July last year and is now back home, scarred perhaps for life.
“He promised her a good life. He even said he will ensure she resumes her studies which she left when she was 10 because we were too poor. Who will marry her now?” her mother asked.
Esha* lost her home in the recent floods and has returned because she sensed a change in the ‘husband’s’ behaviour and was scared he would abused her and traffic her. Kakali Das, assistant secretary at GGBK, said there are many instances of girls being married as soon as they are physically developed.
“Every second day it is seen that some underage girl is getting married in the region. People are so poverty stricken in this area, especially because of pandemic and climate change, that they just want to get their child married as soon as possible so they have one responsibility less,” Das said.
Child marriage is a marriage in which either the woman is below the age of 18 or the man is below the age of 21. Dr Namita Jain, consultant, obstetrics & gynaecology, Paras Hospitals, Gurugram, said child marriage can have detrimental impact on a girl child’s health both physical and mental health.
“Exposure to sexual intercourse at a young age when they are not physically and emotionally ready, predisposes them to sexually transmitted infection, gender-based violence (GBV). and unwanted pregnancies. Child marriage is one of the key drivers of adolescent pregnancy which carries serious health risks,” she said.
According to an analysis released by UNICEF in March this year, 10 million additional child marriages may occur before the end of the decade due to COVID-19. (*Names changed to protect identity).