Over 500 cases of child marriage were reported in West Bengal since mid-March when the nationwide COVID-19 lockdown was imposed, officials said, claiming that in most cases, underage girls were married off by families who lost their earnings due to the shutdown.
Despite restrictions in travel and movement, there has been no let-up in child marriages over the past few months, although the West Bengal Commission for Protection of Child Rights has thwarted several such cases upon receiving complaints, she said.
At least 22 cases of child marriage were registered this month at the WBCPCR helpdesk, which was set up on June 1, amid reports that the illegal practice was rampant in several parts of the state, Moumita Chatterjee, a consultant of the statutory body, told PTI on Monday.
Some girls are married off young as the families find it difficult to bear their expenses, while there are others that also flee home to tie the knot with partners of their choice, the WBCPCR consultant said.
Add to that, traffickers are always on the prowl in the rural areas, especially during times of crisis, when they can lure families with promises of job and money.
The WBCPCR is coordinating with Childline and the police for all such cases, she said.
"Between March 20 and April 14 (run-up to lockdown and its early stages), a total of 141 cases were recorded by the commission. The Childline has informed us that cases soared between April 15 and May-end with 357 such reports," Chatterjee said.
"The consolidated figure of the total number of reported cases for the entire lockdown phase was being assessed for validation," she said.
The commission has, however, been able to take prompt action and prevent the marriage in 85 per cent of the cases, most of which were reported from South 24 Parganas, North 24 Parganas, East Burdwan and West Burdwan, she stated.
"The lockdown has hit many families, prompting a few of them to marry off their minor daughter, as that would mean one less mouth to feed. During such times, trafficking cases also surge. We are working with the local administration, Childline and voluntary bodies to sensitise the parents," Chatterjee said.
The WBCPCR had recently organised a workshop, in association with the Child Development and Rehabilitation Department, in Bengal's North 24 Parganas district to discuss ways to end this social menace.
Chatterjee said the commission has also set up another helpline for children facing mental stress, anxiety and depression in the midst of the lockdown.
"Four doctors appointed by the WBCPCR, at different time slots, are counselling children, and motivating them to cope with the stress," she added.