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How is climate change driving child marriage?

Photo Credit: Take Part and Thomson Reuters Foundation 2016

Climate change is arguably one of the largest threats to global development and security. When we think about climate change, we might picture rising sea levels, scarce resources and natural disasters. But increasing anecdotal evidence suggests climate change is also driving rates of child marriage around the world.

No more so than in Bangladesh, as shown in Hidden Connections a series of documentaries by Take Part and the Thomson Reuters Foundation. Hidden Connections tell the stories of Brishti and Razia, two friends who, with their families, were displaced after flooding devastated their homes. In the documentaries we see the girls and their families grapple with child marriage. 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.

Bangladesh already has one of highest rates of child marriage in the world at 52%. How and why is climate change contributing to these lost childhoods?

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. Many of these families choose to migrate to Dhaka in search of employment where the costs of living are much higher.

These so-called “climate change refugees” are often forced to live in impoverished and desperate conditions in the slums of Dhaka. Girls’ education is seen as a luxury they cannot afford. Many rural villages in Bangladesh enjoy free education but in Dhaka, school costs money many parents do not have.

In Hidden Connections, Razia’s father describes this situation as “hopeless”. He feels his only option is to marry Razia off because he cannot afford her education or upkeep. According to a local schoolteacher, he is just one of thousands of parents who feel this way.

2. Poor families rely on dowry as a source of income

In Bangladesh, the bride’s family is expected to pay the groom’s parents a dowry to protect and keep their daughter. Some poor families think making a one-off payment is more feasible  than paying a sustained cost of their daughter’s  upkeep, particularly if they have lost their livelihood.

Hidden Connections also suggests that dowry payments sometimes increase as a girl gets older because her chances of being “unpure” – namely engaging in sexual activity before marriage – supposedly increase. This can encourage underprivileged families to marry their daughters younger.

Additionally, when men who depend on farming for an income lose their livelihoods due to flooding or droughts, they or their families may turn to a dowry as a means of income.

3. Child marriage to protect a girls’ honour

The concept of “honour” can also drive child marriage. Parents might marry off their daughters to avoid speculation about their friendships with boys.

Some families also see marriage as a way to protect their daughters from sexual harassment, common in Dhaka and urban Bangladesh. Married girls are less likely to be harassed because they are accompanied by a man.

Hidden Connections features research suggesting that 90% of women in Bangladesh report sexual harassment in public places.

“Honour” can be even more important to an unemployed father who cannot feed his children. Men are brought up to believe they should be the breadwinners. 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.

“To keep our honour we turn to marriage.” In Hidden Connections Razia’s father explains that if his daughter is seen with another boy he will lose his honour.

Hidden Connections paints a worrying picture of climate change’s impact on girls in Bangladesh. It suggests that climate change is exacerbating existing drivers of child marriage including poverty and patriarchal norms.

Could this be a worldwide trend? More research is needed. But with child marriage also increasing as a result of droughts from Mozambique to Guatemala, the lives of thousands of girls worldwide could be under threat from increasing global temperatures.

More on child marriage and climate change:

We originally posted this blog in November 2016. We’ve updated it and are sharing it again to mark World Environment Day on 5 June 2017.

This blog relates to Goal E “Learning” of Girls Not Brides’ 2017-2020 strategy. The goal is about ensuring efforts to end child marriage are based on evidence. Find out more.