Climate Change and Its Impact on Child Marriage in Bangladesh

by Aerica Rishiraj, Raktimava Bose, and Omar Raad Chowdhury

stop child marriage

Climate change is often discussed in terms of rising sea levels, extreme weather events, and threats to food security. But there is another devastating consequence of our warming planet that often goes overlooked: the impact on child marriages. Nowhere is this more evident than in Bangladesh, which is quite prone to a variety of natural disasters that are induced by climate change. Although Bangladesh made significant progress in curbing child marriages, the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the situation. In this context, it has become all the more important to take into account the impact of the climate crisis on child marriages, if effective policy measures are to be adopted.

The link between climate change and child marriage is manifested through a number of intermediate factors. Climate change has been driving extreme weather events like heatwaves and droughts while causing an increase in frequency of disasters like floods, cyclones, and hurricanes. These weather shocks in turn affect agricultural productivity and capacities of rural communities. As an adaptability strategy, poor and vulnerable households are forcing their daughters into marriages. Bangladesh is not an exception in this regard, similar phenomenon has also been observed in Africa.

However, Bangladesh’s vulnerability to natural calamities puts it in a riskier place with respect to child marriage. Due to a number of factors including geographic location, land characteristics, multiplicity of rivers and the monsoon climate, Bangladesh is highly vulnerable to climatological, hydrometeorological, and other geophysical hazards. As recently as May 2023, Bangladesh was vulnerable to the extremely severe cyclonic storm Mocha. Although Bangladesh is now regarded a global leader in disaster management, with the climate crisis worsening, the vulnerability to natural disasters is only heightening. The impact of these natural disasters, through various socio-economic channels, may worsen the child marriage situation in Bangladesh where patriarchal norms are deeply entrenched.

Empirical evidence suggests that, in Bangladesh, 62% of all child marriages occurred within the first 12 months in the five years following the 2007 cyclone Sidr. Moreover, the closure of schools during such events, where they were used as emergency shelters, resulted in the loss of academic years. This, in turn, results in parents marrying off their girls.

It can be argued that, the socio-economic and cultural factors contributing in child marriage are being strengthened by climate change. In some communities, there is a preference for young brides in marriage as they are regarded as fertile and also easier to dominate. For impoverished parents, any doubts about their daughter’s behaviour or character can increase the cost of dowry; given the constant risk of sexual harassment and insecurity during natural disasters, families under distress often opt to marry off their daughters at a young age as a means of seeking protection and easing their burdens.

From an economic perspective, poverty is identified as a primary cause of child marriage. According to the UNFPA, in South Asia, girls from the poorest quintile are four times more likely to become child brides than those born into the wealthiest quintile. With climate change and increased poverty, families are marrying their daughters off early, as it involves a one-time payment rather than ongoing expenses for their daughter’s care. This is especially true in areas where dowry practices are standard, as the costs associated with marriage can be reduced after a disaster.

According to new UNICEF figures, South Asia has the largest number of child brides in the world, as growing financial difficulties and school closures due to COVID-19 drove families to marry off their young daughters. The area has 290 million child brides, accounting for 45% of the global total, according to the United Nations Children’s Agency, which called for further efforts to eliminate the practise of child marriage.

A survey on female victims of child marriage, conducted in 2021 in eight villages in climate-affected coastal Bangladesh, found that before marriage, more over two-thirds of the qualitative survey respondents had experienced at least one natural disaster. It also indicated a deep link between climate-related shocks and the prevalence of child marriage.

Unfortunately, the Child Marriage Restraint Act 2016 of Bangladesh has loopholes that will allow girls under 18 to get married under “special circumstances”. It goes without saying that loopholes in the legal framework will only add to the grievances of young girls who are vulnerable to forced marriage.

One way to address climate change and its impact on child marriage is to adopt a holistic approach toward empowering young girls and their families. This entails incorporating strategies like agricultural skills training, life skills, empowerment training, and property rights reform. Additionally, it is essential to involve women and girls in the planning of disaster response actions and in promoting their access to sustainable energy and time-saving technologies.

It is our responsibility to work together to stop climate change from becoming a driving force behind child marriage in Bangladesh. Now is the time to pay attention and act. We have the power to make a change, to reduce carbon footprint and to support vulnerable communities. We need to adopt lifestyle values that promote a greener future. However, the fight against child marriage and climate change will have to be spearheaded by international collaborative actions. Countries that have been historically responsible for carbon emission need to come forward and assist poorer countries in tackling the challenges of climate change. Additionally, we must pursue our governments to take consistent policy actions including funding renewable energy projects, safeguarding at-risk areas, and promoting sustainable agriculture.

Aerica Rishiraj, Research Intern, The Energy and Resource Institute (TERI), New Delhi, India. Email: [email protected].

Raktimava Bose, Associate Fellow, The Energy and Resource Institute (TERI), New Delhi, India. Email: [email protected].

Omar Raad Chowdhury, Research Associate, South Asian Network on Economic Modeling (SANEM), Dhaka, Bangladesh. Email: [email protected].

[Note: The article first appeared in The Business Standard, a national daily of Bangladesh, under the title “A distressing correlation between climate-related shocks and the prevalence of child marriage”, on 22 June 2023]

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