This amazing app is helping to end child marriages

This amazing app is helping to end child marriages

Child marriage might be illegal under Indian law, but that doesn’t stop the country from having the highest rates of the practice in the entire world, accounting for one third of all cases worldwide. With girls considered financial burdens in many communities and social norms dictating decision making, dowries - the payment provided by the bride's family to the husband's upon marriage - is still commonplace. For families, a daughter’s early marriage may be considered a convenient solution - the younger the bride, the smaller the dowry. But for the girls themselves, it often means leaving education, living away from their families and entering into sexual relationships before they are emotionally or physically ready.

According to the children's charity UNICEF, an estimated 18 per cent of girls in India are married by the time they reach 15, with 47 per cent already having wed by the time they are 18. Yet in some states, the statistics are even higher. Bihar, in northeast India, is a prime example: here, child marriage is anything but the exception, with 69 per cent of all girls already married by the time they turn 18, according to charity Girls Not Brides. But now, thanks to the development of an app that provides both education to families and a last-ditch escape for the girls involved, technology is proving a valuable asset in the fight against child marriage.

Screenshot of app showing drawing of tied hands Credit: Google Play/Bandhan Tod

Bandhan Tod - which literally means “break the binds” - is an app which includes information on the impact of dowries, child marriage and domestic violence. Most importantly, it also includes an SOS button that can be used by girls in danger or distress, to confidentially alert a network of civil organisations about their plight. Once activated, the user's location and situation will be sent to a nearby NGO who will first attempt to intervene to resolve the situation by talking to the families. If that fails and the team consider the child to be still at risk, the police will be involved. It also includes other financial incentives to use it, such as rebates on electricity bills. 

The app, which is backed by the United Nations Population Fund, was created by Gender Alliance Bihar, a collective of over 270 civil rights organisations, who said that the technology was a “big part” of their efforts to end child marriage. Designed in Hindi - the official language in Bihar - it is hoped that it will prove particularly effective in rural areas, where the practice is most prevalent. For girls that do not have access to an android device, a link with a friend's phone can also be established so that they can text a friend with the app, who can then send out an SOS on their behalf. It is also hoped that by cutting the number of child marriages, it will reduce teenage pregnancies in the region; according to India’s Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, 12 per cent of girls here are pregnant or already mothers by the time they reach 18. 

Having been introduced in September 2017, Bandhan Tod has now been downloaded thousands of times and is already making an impact. By December, the SOS button had already been used 240 times. In one case, police were able to rescue a desperate 13-year-old girl from marrying a 15-year-old boy mid-ceremony, in a wedding that had been arranged by her parents, the Times of India reported. “Had it not been for this app, perhaps the two teenagers would have become victims of child marriage, spelling doom for both of them," a source at Gender Alliance, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, told them.

Screenshot of SOS section of app Credit: Google Play/Bandhan Tod

It’s not the only scheme taking place to reduce child marriage, however. After visits from women's organisations, some villages have declared their areas to be “child-marriage free”, agreeing as a community not to engage in the practice and signing a public pledge to respect this. This, they say, has dramatically reduced the number of such ceremonies occurring. In India’s famed Rajasthan state, authorities have turned to wedding tent suppliers for help in spotting upcoming nuptials and in doing so have stopped dozens of child marriages from occurring. Other areas have even taken to providing girls with football lessons to encourage them to have the confidence to stand up for themselves. 

Fortunately, efforts such as these do appear to be working and although progress is slow, the growing support for organisations and anti-marriage initiatives shows that societal attitudes can change. But that this app has been used so frequently since its inception - in just one region of the country - is proof that there is still so much work to be done. And while smartphones often get a bad rap, it's pretty clear that this is a great example of the world making the most of new technology to protect girls from outdated traditions.