Girls in India are increasingly being exploited on social media as children spend more time online during the pandemic with a spike in child marriages making them vulnerable to traffickers, Save the Children warned today.
Reports of child marriage and sexual abuse have risen by up to 52% in some states in India, as families have lost their livelihoods and children – particularly girls – have dropped out of school.
In the southern Indian state of Telangana, authorities intervened to stop 1,355 child marriages between April 2020 and March this year – a 27% increase on the previous year.
In July, Save the Children staff intervened to stop the marriage of a 15-year-old girl groomed on social media by an older man. Another staff member stopped at least five marriages from happening after men contacted girls through social media.
The agency is working with children and teachers to raise awareness about staying safe online.
Shahida*, 15, started talking to 24-year-old Aadil after he contacted her on social media. Shahida’s school has been closed for over a year, and with little to do at home, she started spending more time online. They soon struck up a relationship and Aadil persuaded Shahida to elope with him and get married.
*“Aadil told me that I could go to a good school if I married him, as he said it would be easier for him to get me enrolled,” *said Shahida.
“I thought if I married him that I’d at least have food to eat, so I agreed to his proposal. I never knew that it might be dangerous for me.”
When Aadil came to take Shahida away, Save the Children’s frontline child protection worker, Rital Pramanick, intervened to stop the marriage.
“*I immediately raised the alarm as child trafficking is rampant in our area. These days, traffickers have changed their mode of operation — social media is one platform through which they reach young children like Shahida,” *said Rita Pramanick.
“Children have been out of school for more than a year now and girls like Shahida, who are living in extreme poverty and are out of school, are always soft targets for predators.”
Mamata Sardar, a youth advocate for Save the Children in West Bengal, said girls in her village are increasingly being lured into marriage on social media.
“As most children are at home now doing their schooling online, they’re glued to social media. As a member of my village child protection committee, I keep a close eye on vulnerable children in my village. I’ve counselled three peers who were almost convinced to get married by men who contacted them on social media. Since the second wave of the pandemic, I’ve had to intervene to stop five child marriages and convince the girls’ parents to let them finish their education before marrying them off.”
Anindit Roy Chowdhury, Director of Programmes and Policy at Save the Children India, said:
“Our staff working in rural and slum areas tell us that child marriage has risen sharply during the pandemic. Villages that haven’t seen a single child marriage for several years are now having to intervene to stop parents from marrying their daughters. Many families have lost their livelihoods and, with children at home all day, they feel they have no choice but to marry their daughter to reduce the number of mouths to feed.”
Child marriage is extremely harmful to girls, Save the Children emphasised. Not only does it mean they’re unable to continue their education and limits their life chances, but it’s also extremely dangerous for their physical and mental health. Pregnancy and childbirth are the leading cause of death globally, for girls aged between 15 and 19.
Save the Children is working to protect vulnerable children from falling victim to trafficking, child marriage or abuse, both during and after the pandemic. It supports children like Shahida by providing counselling to help them cope with the impacts of abuse and also teaches children and families about online safety.
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