For 17-year-old Noor from Balapur, Hyderabad life before the pandemic involved going to school and spending time with her friends. With the pandemic and subsequent closure of schools, she was confined to her home, grappling with problems far beyond her age.
Noor's father works as a daily wage labourer. She has five brothers; her elder brother has started working and her two younger brothers are studying in a government school and two in a madrassa. With nine dependents, her father was struggling to make ends meet and the pandemic caused economic slowdown worsened his financial burden. With no immediate option in sight, he decided to cut down his costs by getting Noor married.
He also believed that his daughter will be safe and secure in a marriage, away from her immediate surroundings. It didn't occur to him that Noor was still 17 and child marriage is a violation of the law. Her father found a 24-year-old man from the same community, fixed the wedding date and sent out the invitations. Save the Children's Child Protection Committee in Hyderabad conducts monthly awareness sessions on child protection rights.
Different levels of community structures have been put in place to facilitate safe reporting of such incidents and respond to the possible risks a child can get exposed to living in such conditions. Each slum is covered under the protection umbrella of committees of children's groups, the Child Protection Committees (CPC) and the adolescents' groups.
While Noor's wedding preparations were going on, one of the members of the Child Protection Committee raised concern about the age of the girl. After a lot of deliberation, the committee members convinced Noor's father to approach Save the Children's Project Office to sort out the issue. Since Noor was 17, running on 18, her father had misunderstood her to be already of marriageable age.
I thought she had turned 18 but after checking official records, we realised she was still 17 and we stopped the wedding. We will wait for her to turn 18," said Noor's father Ali Johar.
Save the Children team explained that Noor was still underage and her marriage will be a violation of the law. Noor is still young and not ready for marriage physically and emotionally. It's also a violation of her rights, marriage at such an early age can leave deep long-lasting wounds. Save the Children was able to counsel Noor's father and get her marriage postponed till she attains marriageable age as per the law.
Hussain Basha of Save the Children team said, "We see a change in mindset of the community to follow the law of the land and they are approaching their committees to seek answers, which is one step towards sustainability."
The active role of the Child Protection Committee resulted in Noor not getting married at an early age. Noor is now learning tailoring skills from her mother.
"Sir explained to me that I am still young for marriage and I have to wait for another year to get married," said Noor.
The pandemic has threatened to undo the progress made in saving girls from early marriage. The closure of schools and loss of livelihoods have put 10 million girls in India at risk of early marriage and early pregnancy. With unemployment and no alternate sources of income, parents often make the poor decision of getting their underage daughters married thinking that it would secure their future and ease their own financial burden.
Save the Children works in close coordination with State Commission for Protection of Child Rights and District Administration, Integrated Child Protection Schemes to ensure the protection of children. The community-based cadres are one of the unique features of village-level Child Protection Committees who act as a bridge between the community and the child protection committee.
These cadres are identified and capacitated to work at the community level to organise regular meetings addressing ensure child safety and protection issues. The community-level watchdog mechanism is one such step to ensure a child-friendly community.
Apart from conducting monthly conduct awareness sessions with the community action groups, Save the Children also encourages the display of 1098 helpline across the neighbourhood for safe reporting of child protection issues.