Since 2015, NPR has been following the efforts of a charity in northern India that has an interesting solution to the problem of child marriage. It's called the Veerni Institute, and it offers village girls who are child brides — or who are at risk of being married off young — the chance to continue their high school education. The institute runs what is effectively a boarding school for these girls in the city of Jodhpur. But on March 24, 2020, it had to scramble when India abruptly declared the first COVID-19 lockdown at 8 p.m. The staff had just four hours to get all 110 girls back to their homes in dozens of surrounding villages. And that would prove just the beginning of the challenges ahead. Here's what happened next:
Komal Rana, then in 10th grade, remembers the anxiety that night at the dorm as she rushed to pack her things.
"It was all so confusing," she says. "Everything was being shut down. I worried about my family. And I worried most of all about my studies."
Specifically, she adds, "My board exam."
It's a national test that every sophomore in India has to pass to go on with high school. It was coming up soon, and Rana had been spending hours preparing.
But the moment she got to her home in the hamlet of Jhalamand, Rana says, "Everybody in my extended family started telling my parents, 'Enough with her studies. She's already gotten through ninth grade. What's the point of studying further? It's time to get her married!' "
The director of the Veerni Institute boarding school program, Mahendra Sharma, says this attitude is common in communities such as Rana's for a simple reason: "It's closely connected with poverty."
In the impoverished rural villages surrounding Jodhpur, there are often no high schools nearby. And parents can't afford to send their daughters to schools farther afield. Many see their daughters as just one more mouth to feed.
Adding to this, Sharma says, is a fear among parents that "it's a danger" to keep unmarried girls as they grow into their teens, because they could be sexually assaulted and consequently stigmatized and rendered unable to be married. It's a sense, Sharma says, that "anything could happen to a girl. So because of that, the parents feel that the girl is their burden and they need to be released from that burden as soon as possible."
Marrying a daughter into another family by the time she's 15 — or even much younger — is seen as the solution — even though child marriage is illegal in India.
Diplomas for daughters
Veerni Institute's boarding school program offers parents an alternative. Sharma and his staff tell the families that if they send their daughter to the program she'll get free room, board and schooling through high school. And with that diploma, she can get a good job.
"It's explaining to the parents, 'Look their daughter can easily become an earning member of their family,' " Sharma says.
But the lockdown upended that deal: Suddenly school was suspended indefinitely.
Rana had just turned 18. Her parents — who work as day laborers in construction — immediately loaded her with the chores expected of a girl in her community.
"We have cattle that I have to look after," she says. "There's all kinds of housework I have to do. I didn't have a chance to even touch my books."
Rana is drawn to science. She says she's wanted to become a doctor since she was 15 and first came to the Veerni Institute's program.
"After meeting the teachers there, it struck me that there is not a single doctor in my village," she says. "That's when I thought, 'Maybe I should become one!' "
And she usually does well on tests. But last summer, when officials finally held the 10th grade exam, she barely passed.
Even now her voice catches as she gives her score: "Fifty-four percent," she says. "When I found out, I cried for two whole days, nonstop. Because your score on the 10th-grade exam affects so much — even what job you can get."
Meanwhile, Rana says, the pressure to get married was growing even more intense because of yet another twist of the pandemic: It made weddings cheap.
Normally families feel obligated to invite legions of guests. "But with the lockdown, you can't invite a lot of people to a wedding," Rana says. "So everyone has gone ahead and done them. Many of my relatives have been married in this period. So my paternal grandparents have been insisting that I should be married — that there is social pressure and the cost will also be low."
Hatching a plan to help
Back in Jodhpur, Sharma, the director of the boarding school program, was crafting a plan to help Rana and the others.
The key, he says, was to make clear to their families that, even while the girls were at home, they could still get an education through remote learning. The challenge: There's no internet in the villages.
"Most of the girls were not connected with online stuff. It was next to impossible."
Then Sharma had an insight. Because of the lockdown a lot of migrant workers had returned to their villages. And these men had mobile phones ... with data plans.
"So we told them, 'Look, we are creating a WhatsApp group. Would you help us?' "
The migrants agreed to lend their phones, and from then on every day, the girls would do their lessons in a notebook, snap a photo and text it to the teacher.
By September, Sharma came up with a more sophisticated plan. He used Veerni's funds to purchase enough tablets for each student, then loaded them with lessons. The program staff drove from village to village, dropping the tablets off along with other supplies such as food, masks, hand sanitizer — and menstrual pads, Sharma says.
Rana was grateful. But she adds ruefully, "It's so much harder to follow these online lessons. In the classroom when the teacher writes on the blackboard and explains it to you, you understand so much better."
So Rana was overjoyed in January when the lockdown was lifted.
Back to school
Sharma was relieved that all the students were able to come back. "I can proudly say that not a single girl has been married during the lockdown," he says.
Still, there were signs at least some of the girls had come out of the experience with scars. Eight students, in particular, seemed notably withdrawn, Sharma says.
"These are girls who [before the lockdown] were doing exceedingly well in their education," he says. But on their return to the Veerni Institute, "suddenly they are not performing well. They have no intention to eat. They have no intention to participate in any activities. And yet they don't want to go back home. They don't want to meet their parents during the time of the parents meeting."
Based on prior experience, he worries that the girls might have been subjected to some type of sexual assault during the months they were stuck in their villages — possibly by some of the many migrant men who flooded into the villages during the lockdown. "I don't know for sure — but these are the signs," Sharma says. He immediately arranged for a psychologist to begin visiting with the girls.
But within just a few months, in April, another lockdown sent all the students right back home.
For Rana, the pressure to marry returned, too. She says she's been trying to stave it off by tutoring some younger children in her community in exchange for money from their families. Because of the lockdown, she notes, there's not a lot of work for her parents. "So I'm trying to support them monetarily." And she hopes it will convince her family she can already be a breadwinner.
Yet her older relatives, especially her grandfather, are unmoved. Recently, Rana says, they presented her with a suitor.
"Everybody in the family was saying, 'He's a good match! Go ahead with it, go ahead with it!' " she says.
But Rana says her father, at least, has told them no.
"Thanks to the support of the boarding school program," she says, "my father is telling them that he's going to let me study, as far as I want to go."