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The pandemic has put many families around the world in financial trouble. In India, where hundreds of millions of people live in poverty, relief workers say it has also led to a spike in child marriages. Desperate parents are trying to marry off their daughters in an attempt to keep them safe and well-fed. NPR's Lauren Frayer reports.
LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: When India went into lockdown this past spring, Rolee Singh jumped into action. She's a relief worker in the northern city of Varanasi. As she distributed food to families who had lost their jobs, she started hearing something surprising.
ROLEE SINGH: (Non-English language spoken).
FRAYER: Lots of weddings being planned in the middle of a crisis. She says migrant workers were losing their jobs, and rural villages suddenly saw an influx of young men returning home.
SINGH: (Non-English language spoken).
FRAYER: "Parents of young girls were feeling insecure," Singh says. So many of them decided to marry off their daughters.
SINGH: (Non-English language spoken).
FRAYER: "It's one less mouth to feed," she says they tell her. What Singh has witnessed in her district is worrying for agencies like Save the Children, which has tracked a nearly 25-year decline in child marriage globally. The pandemic appears to have reversed that, says spokeswoman Gabrielle Szabo.
GABRIELLE SZABO: Globally, we're now predicting that an additional half a million girls will be at risk of child marriage by the end of December.
FRAYER: And 2.5 million girls in the next five years. India may be among the worst-hit, she says.
SZABO: India was already home to one-third of child brides globally. And a lot of the risk factors that we've always recognized - poverty, food insecurity - all of these risk factors are increasing in COVID.
FRAYER: In India, the legal age for marriage is 18 for women and 21 for men. Every district has a child protection officer to enforce that. Vijay Muttur serves in the south-central city of Solapur.
VIJAY MUTTUR: (Through interpreter) During the pandemic, my phone has been ringing off the hook. Sometimes, it's the girl themself (ph) who call me pleading for help, saying their parents are trying to get them married, but they want to stay in school.
FRAYER: If the girls are underage, Muttur calls the police and arranges an intervention.
MUTTUR: (Through interpreter) We have halted 40 child marriages in my district in the past six months, double as many as last year. Some of them are girls as young as 12. Their parents worry about their finances and the virus. They think, if I die, what'll happen to my family? So they think it's better to get the girl married now.
FRAYER: Dattatray Shankar Sutar was in that situation. His brother, a father of four, died in February. When schools closed, one of his nieces was left at home all day while her mother worked in the fields.
DATTATRAY SHANKAR SUTAR: (Non-English language spoken).
FRAYER: "I tried to get her married for her own safety," the uncle says. The plans were halted by authorities, though. The almost-bride, Sau Sutar, is now 17. NPR spoke to her by phone with her family's permission.
SAU SUTAR: (Through interpreter) I felt a bit strange about getting married, but there was no other option. The man was 22 or 25, I think. When authorities intervened, I felt pretty relieved. I want to continue my studies.
FRAYER: She'll be in 11th grade whenever her school reopens.
Lauren Frayer, NPR News.
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