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The ‘Hidden Connections’ between climate change and child marriage in Bangladesh

Photo Credit: Take Part and Thomson Reuters Foundation 2016

Climate change is considered by some to be one of the largest threats to global development and security. When thinking about the damage caused by increasing global temperatures, we often picture rising sea levels, scarce resources and natural disasters. Until now, little has been known about the potential links between climate change and child marriage.

A recent documentary series by Take Part and the Thomson Reuters Foundation suggests that climate change is indirectly causing an increase in child marriage in Bangladesh – a country where 52% of girls are married before their 18th birthday. Three short documentaries entitled Hidden Connections follow two female friends: Brishti, aged 13, and Razia aged 14 and explore the impact climate change has had on their lives.

Both Brishti and Razia recently migrated to Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh after flooding caused by climate change, devastated their families’ homes. Brishti was one of thousands of girls brought to Dhaka to be married. In contrast, Razia’s family are shown debating whether or not to marry off their daughter. These stories give an insight into how climate change is indirectly causing an increase in child marriage in Bangladesh. Here are 3 key connections that emerged from the series:

  1. ‘Climate change refugees’ and girl’s education

Floods, droughts and natural disasters have forced thousands of farmers in rural Bangladesh out of work by destroying their crops, livestock and homes. Research suggests that as a result between 50,000 and 200,000 people have been forced to migrate to Dhaka where the costs of living are much higher. These higher costs along with the social and financial insecurity they cause are forcing many families to marry off their young daughters and sons.

So-called ‘climate change refugees’ are often forced to live in impoverished and desperate conditions in the slums of Dhaka. In this situation a girl’s education is considered a luxury many cannot afford. Razia explains in Hidden Connections that in the villages of Jamalpur where she is from, marriage tends to happen later when girls finish their education but that in Dhaka, school costs money most parents do not have. Marriage and motherhood are often perceived as the only other alternative. Razia’s father describes this situation as “hopeless” as he explains that he feels his only option is to marry Razia because he cannot afford her education or upkeep. According to a local schoolteacher in Dhaka, he is one of thousands of parents who feel marriage is the only solution to their climate change-induced poverty.

  1. Increased poverty means a greater need for dowries

In Bangladesh, the bride’s family is expected to pay the groom’s parents a dowry to protect and keep their daughter. Hidden Connections explores the fact that the dowry system is in part being sustained by the poverty caused by loss of livelihood. When men who depend on farming for an income are forcibly unemployed due to flooding or droughts, they or their families may turn to dowry as a means of income. Hidden Connections also suggests that dowry payments may increase as a girl gets older because her age supposedly increases her chances of being ‘unpure.’* Underprivileged families might therefore be incentivised to marry their daughters at increasingly young ages. In the documentary series, Razia’s parents also discuss how dowry-related violence and divorce are more common between desperately impoverished families. Razia’s sister was nearly returned to her father after they could not pay her entire dowry.

  1. Climate migration to cities puts an unmarried girls ‘honour’ at risk

For the bride’s family, the concept of ‘honour’ can also drive child marriage. Parents may marry off their daughters to avoid speculation about their friendships with boys. Marriage is also a deterrent to the sexual harassment common in urban Bangladesh; Hidden Connections features research suggesting that 90% of women in Bangladesh report sexual harassment in public places. To avoid this, some families see marriage as a form of protection for their daughters. Honour is an extremely important measure of social standing in Dhaka so some families marry off their daughters to avoid dishonour. In Hidden Connections Razia’s father explains that if his daughter is seen with another boy he will lose his honour.

“To keep our honour we turn to marriage.”

The concept of honour becomes even more important to an unemployed father who cannot feed his children. Men are brought up to believe they should be the breadwinners of the household, if they cannot do this they may feel emasculated as if they are not performing their duty. These feelings of inadequacy increase if a man’s daughter is ‘gossiped’ about, sexually harassed or considered ‘promiscuous’ in any way. To avoid emasculation, fathers are encouraged to marry their daughters and avoid loss of honour.

So is climate change having a wide spread effect on increasing child marriage numbers worldwide? Well that remains to be seen, but this documentary series shows that it has certainly contributed to Razia and Brishti’s fate and possibly that of many other girls in urban Bangladesh. A potentially very worrying trend.

*The term ‘unpure’ relates to the belief that the daughter may have had sexual contact with other boys/men before the marriage, which is seen as a negative characteristic for a potential bride.