Girls are being trafficked into domestic servitude or sex slavery after their parents illegally marry them off, said officials in the Indian state of Maharashtra on Tuesday.
Researchers are conducting the state’s first survey into links between child marriage and slavery, according to Vijaya Rahatkar, chairperson of Maharashtra’s women’s commission.
The legal age of marriage in India is 18 for women and 21 for men. Parents face a fine of 100,000 rupees ($1,535) and two years in prison if they are caught trying to marry off their underage children.
But discrimination against girls remains widespread, particularly in rural and poor communities where parents often view daughters as financial burdens and continue to marry them off early.
“Many of these marriages do not last, and we have now seen cases where there are direct and indirect linkages to trafficking,” Rahatkar told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Rahatkar said her commission decided to carry out the survey after receiving reports of child brides enslaved in households and sold into brothels.
After one such report, authorities rescued a girl who had been married off and then forced to work without wages on a farm, where she was abused and tied up so she did not run away.
The findings of the survey, currently underway in districts that report high rates of child marriage, will be shared with various state governments, said Rahatkar.
There has been a “complete vacuum in the research space on trafficking and child marriage,” said Adrian Phillips of the anti-trafficking group Justice and Care.
The research is expected to provide data that will expose connections between the two crimes, said Phillips, whose group has partnered with the women’s commission to conduct the survey.
The number of girls getting married in India has fallen by nearly half in the past decade, the United Nations children’s agency, UNICEF, said in March. But 27 percent of all brides are still below age 18, according to UNICEF.
Campaigners say it is difficult to convince many people that the tradition of child marriage is wrong.
“They believe there is no ill in the practice, as it has been going on for years,” said Nirmal Gorana, convener of the National Campaign Committee for Eradication of Bonded Labour.
“When parents marry their girls young, it is also to ensure they do not stake any claim on the parent’s property,” he added.