Child Marriage Links to Climate Change
Climate change is reshaping girls’ futures.
Posted December 2, 2022 | Reviewed by Tyler Woods
- Every day, 39,000 girls become child brides, totaling more than 14 million child brides around the world each year.
- Child marriage is a form of gender-based violence (GBV) that can also increase the possibility and intensity of other forms of GBV.
- Child marriage tends to be common among agricultural communities which are also more likely to be experience the effects of climate change.
- By 2050, UNICEF predicts the total number of child brides in Africa, the continent most impacted by climate change, could double to 310 million.
This post is co-written with Talia Tao.
“I have accepted that climate change has affected my life and brought me where I am now.”
— Agnes Mposwa, a 14-year-old child bride in Malawi
Global warming and climate change are happening at an unprecedented rate. Women and girls are especially vulnerable to the effects of climate change, which can include poverty, displacement, and lack of education. These all relate to, and can exacerbate, gender inequality. According to the Global Climate Risk Index, some of the countries most affected by climate change are Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and Malawi; all of which have astounding rates of child marriage. In these countries, 53 percent, 34 percent, and 42 percent (respectively) of girls are married before they turn age 18, often bearing children in their early teens.
Every day, 39,000 girls become child brides, totaling more than 14 million child brides around the world each year. UNICEF predicts that by 2050, the total number of child brides in Africa, the continent most impacted by climate change, could double to 310 million.
Three general trends explain how climate change influences child marriage rates.
The first is slow, gradual livelihood loss due to the indirect impacts of climate change. Carlina Nortino, a child bride in Mozambique who married her 14-year-old husband when she was only 13, saw dwindling agricultural production as a direct driver of her forced marriage. “At the time where I was farming with my mother, we used to get 15 to 20 bags, 50kg bags, of cassava. Today, it’s maybe one or two bags. The production started coming down because of the lack of rain,” she recounted.
The world’s most vulnerable populations—agricultural farmers, fishers, and gatherers—depend heavily on the environment and are therefore the most susceptible to fluctuations in climate. Rising sea temperatures mean fewer fish to be caught. Droughts and floods make farming and animal husbandry nearly impossible. When families fail to make ends meet, child marriage may be the fastest and most convenient way to reduce pressure on the family and limited resources by feeding one less mouth while earning income through dowry and bride prices. Girls sometimes passively accept these proposals because they see them as a way to improve their lives as well.
The second is sudden, rapid climate disasters, which can completely reshape a girl’s future due to complete property loss. When Cyclones Idai and Kennet hit Malawi, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe in 2019, they caused a large wave of climate change refugees, people who have been displaced due to the destruction of their livelihoods and property resulting from natural disasters. As families were moved into settlement camps, reports of child marriage increased more than two-fold. This sudden instability created increased living costs and decreased disposable income for many families who saw child marriage as a way out of their desperate situations. As extreme weather events become more common, families in low-income countries are going to be faced with this decision more often.
The aftermath of a climate disaster, an indisputable time of turmoil, can create an economic shock to families. For the families of girls, marrying off their daughters can be seen as a way to quickly garner some income to support other children, most typically boys. But it is important to note that child marriage not only involve millions of girl brides but may also include a child groom. As these young boys are expected to take on adult responsibilities, they rely on women and girls to handle household duties.
The third interrelated, and possibly the most controversial reason is for protection; protection for the girls but, most importantly, the “honor” of the family. The risk of sexual violence is heightened following a natural disaster for several reasons, partially because of the chaos, disruptions, and lack of shelter that results. In addition, due to the lack of privacy and security in displacement settlements, girls and young women are at higher risks of sexual harassment and assault in the camps as well.
Hence, many parents cite protection from sexual exploitation to justify their decision to marry off their daughters before they are adults. However, their husbands may become a new source of abuse; rates of intimate partner violence are high among child brides. In fact, the United Nations points out that child marriage is a major human rights violation; it robs girls of decision-making power over their lives and bodies, disrupts their education, and puts them at greater risk of violence, discrimination and abuse.
Additionally, the concern of “honor,” or fear of a daughter being seen as promiscuous, pushed some families to marry girls off when they are seen with other men during the migration process. Due to traditional female gender roles, women and adolescent girls are often expected to manage households, including acquiring food, water, and wood for cooking. Environmental disasters, such as droughts, floods, hurricanes, and wildfires, make these resources scarce. When females have to go farther from their homes to obtain daily necessities, like water and firewood, they are at a greater risk of sexual violence.
The impacts of child marriage
Girls as "second-class citizens": When families face the decision of which “mouth to sacrifice” to preserve household resources, girls are generally chosen over boys. The pervasive historical and cultural factors that perpetuate gender inequality are difficult to change. Families are more incentivized to invest in boys because they’re easily employed and can, in turn, support the family. Child marriage, disproportionately affecting girls, reinforces the gendered nature of poverty because girls’ educations are cut short, making it more difficult for them to be empowered and employed in an already discriminatory and hostile social and work environment.
Gender-based violence: Child marriage itself is a form of recognized gender-based violence (GBV) but it can also increase the possibility and intensity of other forms of GBV, including rape, domestic abuse, and female genital mutilation. Studies show that married girls experience higher rates of violence—physical, emotional, sexual, and financial—than their unmarried peers. Economic dependency on husbands also makes it difficult for girls married as children to escape an unhealthy relationship.
High infant mortality and childbirth-related deaths: Early childbearing puts girls’ lives in jeopardy; the leading cause of death among 15 to 19-year-old girls globally is pregnancy/maternal complications. Child brides are also more vulnerable to a myriad of mental health conditions, including depression, often caused by social isolation.
Due to the pressure from NGOs and civil society activists, many governments, including those in Egypt, Malawi, India, and Bangladesh, have attempted to reduce rates of child marriage by raising legal marriage ages. However, due to the lack of enforcement, these laws have not had much impact.
Solutions may need to come from civil society through programs that include both social intervention and economic support. If girls and women earn less than men, they can be seen as more cost-effective to abandon or marry off. But if girls receive appropriate education, they may be just as likely to attain well-paying jobs as their male counterparts. Cash transfers and education payments have been tested in some settings to encourage families to continue supporting their daughters’ education.
Child marriage tends to be common among those who lack access to resources and have lower incomes, particularly in agricultural communities. Climate change is most likely to affect these communities. Ultimately, girls cannot be perceived as expedient solutions to livelihood loss due to climate change. We are already seeing climate disasters reshape girls’ futures. We must come up with solutions now.
Talia Tao is a student majoring in international relations and communications at the University of Southern California.
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