08/10/2021, 14.56
INDIA
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Andhra Pradesh: child labour and child marriage double because of COVID-19

by Alessandra De Poli

School closures due to the pandemic are causing problems, says Venkataswamy Rajarapu, director general of the Street2School programme. Economic and cultural factors explain rising child abuse. The worst of the pandemic might be over, but a third wave is feared this fall.

 

Vijayawada (AsiaNews) – The COVID-19 pandemic has caused serious damage to more than public health. In some countries, schools have been closed and more and more children affected have found themselves with learning disorders and more. This is the case of India.

In the South Asian nation, since the onset of the health crisis, the number of girls married off has increased. Similarly, more and more children are being forced to work.

In Andhra Pradesh, in south-eastern India on the Bay of Bengal, the situation is truly serious. During the first waves of the pandemic, cases of child labour and child marriages have doubled.

According to the latest government data, more than 29 per cent of women aged 20 to 24 were married when they were minors; of these, 12.6 per cent got pregnant the first time between the ages of 15 and 19. 

UNICEF warns that the progress achieved in past decades in terms of child protection could be erased by the consequences of the pandemic. 

To understand the causes of such abuses, cultural and economic factors must be taken into account, this according to Venkataswamy Rajarapu, general manager of Street2School, a programme sponsored by Care&Share, an Italian NGO that has been operating in India for more than 30 years.

Speaking to AsiaNews, Rajarapu said that “In rural and marginalised communities, the legal age for marriage is not respected. Girls are married at the age of 14 because their parents were also married at the same age. But families also do it for economic reasons.

“With COVID-19, the dowry costs less. Since many parents have been left without work, they agree to marry their daughters now because prices could increase. Moreover, the younger the girl, the less families have to spend.”

“The fear that girls may marry someone of a different caste or another religion is also an important factor. If that were to happen, the girl could be accused of dishonouring the family. Many young people commit suicide or are killed for it,” the expert explained.

The impoverishment of families also pushes parents to send their children out to work. 

“A distinction must be made between work in the fields and work elsewhere. Here in Andhra Pradesh farm work is not usual, but some children are sent to cotton plantations because with their small hands it is easier for them to pick the flowers without ruining them.”

Fewer and laxer police checks and school closure have made things much easier. Even the facilities that house children and adolescents, including those of Care&Share, were closed for fear of outbreaks.

Children have been placed with guardians or individual parents who often cannot provide for them even with government help (usually 5 kg of poor-quality rice).

Finally, there is the psychological factor. “Not only are children sent to work, but they become the object of the anxieties and fears of adults. They are isolated and cannot go out and see their friends. Frustrated by the lack of work, parents see children at home as an additional burden, and many are also physically abused,” Rajarapu noted.

The pandemic situation is no longer as serious as it was a few months ago (with open-air crematoria), but people still fear a third wave this fall. Yet, many are reluctant towards vaccines, fearing a Chinese conspiracy. 

Among the poorest groups, like tribal communities, few can afford protective gear.

“During the first wave we mainly distributed food", said Antonio Benci, general manager of Care&Share. “With the second wave, government agencies asked us to help in hospitals and COVID centers, which sprung up like mushrooms. But our staff on the ground had no masks, and especially no vaccine.”

The school year in India started again in June, but education is a state responsibility, with each deciding independently how to handle the situation.

In most cases, families can choose whether to continue online teaching or not. If children want to go back to school, they need a written permission from their parents. This may not end child abuse.

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