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How Climate Change Drives Child Marriage

Climate change makes already vulnerable girls even more so. As world leaders gather at the COP23 climate summit in Bonn this week, Lakshmi Sundaram of Girls Not Brides says child marriage must be on the agenda.

Written by Lakshmi Sundaram Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
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A girl wades to her flooded home at Sariakandhi, Bogra. Climate change increases the risk of flooding in Bangladesh, which makes girls more vulnerable to being married off by families in need. K M Asad/LightRocket via Getty Images

We think we know what climate change looks like. Rising sea levels; cyclones; cities underwater. But there is a hidden story of climate change, and it is girls who often pay the heaviest price.

As extreme weather and natural disasters destroy livelihoods, desperation, insecurity and hunger are driving families to marry off their daughters, often with devastating consequences.

In the past few years we’ve seen growing evidence that extreme weather and natural disasters are linked to increasing child marriage rates. Each year, 15 million girls are married before the age of 18, many of them in countries particularly vulnerable to climate change. Girls are married off in both times of stability and crisis, because they are seen as being less valuable than boys. But natural disasters exacerbate poverty, insecurity and lack of access to education; all factors that can increase the rates of child marriage.

Stories from Bangladesh illustrate this heartbreaking reality. Increased floods, droughts and tropical cyclones are compounding a pre-existing crisis where 52 percent of Bangladeshi girls are already married before they are 18. Research by Human Rights Watch found that climate change was driving child marriage in the country, as families made decisions about marriage for reasons directly related to natural disasters – some, for example, married off a daughter in anticipation of losing their home to river erosion.

Climate change is also driving increased migration to cities, which increases pressure on families and further fuels child marriage. According to a study by the Refugee and Migratory Movements Research Unit at the University of Dhaka, between 50,000 and 200,000 people are estimated to have migrated to Bangladesh’s capital to escape climate-related insecurity – many of them young girls.

These so-called climate refugees are often forced to live in impoverished and desperate conditions in the slums of Dhaka. For families that have lost their livelihoods, the one-off payment of a marriage dowry to a groom’s family is often a more viable option than struggling to feed, clothe, educate, house and protect a daughter for years to come.

Some families also see marriage as a way to protect their daughters from sexual harassment, or to avoid family dishonor that may come from a girl at risk in a city full of strangers. They may not realize, however, the violence girls face within marriage.

In sub-Saharan Africa, research suggests drought is putting increased pressure on families to marry their daughters in return for a “bride price.”

2016 report by Care found that in Mozambique, child marriage significantly increased with the onset of drought as families who lost livelihoods, land and homes were pushed to marry off their daughters as a source of income, or to reduce the number of mouths to feed.

As drought drives people into displacement camps in East Africa, the pressure on families to marry their daughters in return for a “bride price” grows. (Robeto Schmidt/AFP/Getty Images)

Devastating Consequences

We have to change this perception that child marriage is the best option for a girl and her family. The truth is, child marriage leads to a range of devastating consequences.

Marriage denies girls their rights and their childhood, and deprives them of any chance of a bright future after a crisis. It often means the end of a girl’s formal schooling and puts her at risk of health dangers associated with early pregnancy, physical and sexual violence, and an increased likelihood of poverty.

Child marriage also weakens efforts to reduce global poverty. A recent study by the World Bank and the International Center for Research on Women found that child marriage costs the global economy trillions of dollars. For countries already vulnerable to the effects of climate change, it’s a cost they cannot afford to ignore.

With the effects of climate change already a reality for many of the world’s poorest countries, how do we make sure they don’t result in a generation of lost childhoods?

Most crucially, governments and NGOs need to pay special attention to the risk of child marriage when they are planning their responses to the humanitarian disasters caused by climate change.

These responses must be driven by women and girls who have been affected by child marriage. They are best placed to understand their own contexts, and can help find ways to keep themselves and their peers safe. It also means, wherever possible, focusing on safe access to quality education for girls, both during and after a crisis.

We need much more research on how rising temperatures are affecting girls and what must be done to ensure rates of child marriage don’t increase. There is still a lot we need to learn about the link between child marriage and climate change. This will help us target our responses more effectively.

As temperatures rise, coasts erode and thousands flee their homes, girls are the most vulnerable. We must not let them be forgotten in the story of the fight against climate change.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of News Deeply.

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