Attendees at the COP22 conference in Marrakech, Morocco, this week to implement the UNFCCC Paris Agreement need to consider more than just the physical degradation caused by climate change; the human costs of increasing global temperatures now include increased risks of child marriage. No more so than in Bangladesh, where increased floods, droughts and river erosion are exacerbating a pre-existing crisis where 52% of girls are married before their 18th birthday due to poverty, gender inequality, and tradition. A new series of documentaries entitled Hidden Connections follow the lives of two female friends: Razia, 14 and Brishti, 13 who have recently migrated to Dhaka after their homes, schools and crops have been desolated by flood waters.
Brishti is bought to Dhaka to be married before she discovers that her 'husband' is already married with children. She flees to her aunt's house and is featured discussing her ruined dreams of becoming a doctor and the prospect of fending for herself. Razia has only very recently migrated to Dhaka from Jamalpur. Her parents are struggling to feed and shelter their family. Only able to afford to send their youngest son to school, Razia's father sees her marriage as the only solution to their struggles. Her mother on the other hand is desperate to keep their daughter at home till she is 18, in the hope that this will give her a better chance of escaping poverty.
For families like Razia's, whose livelihood relies solely on agriculture, increasingly turbulent seasons make sustaining an income virtually impossible. Climate change is generating a fraught environment of food insecurity and poverty, causing an increase in 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 Dhaka to escape climate-related insecurity, many of them young girls. These so-called 'climate change refugees' are living in increasingly impoverished conditions in the slums of Dhaka. Here, a girl's education costs substantially more than in rural areas, and is a luxury these families cannot afford. Where girls like Brishti and Razia might have stayed in education and married later in the villages, they are now having to flee to Dhaka where they will be married earlier.
Exacerbated poverty also sustains the dowry system in Bangladesh, whereby the bride's father is expected to pay the groom's family to protect and keep his daughter. Exchanging dowry in Bangladesh is illegal but remains pervasive throughout the country. For a family, such as Brishti's, who have just lost their paddy fields and home due to flooding, the short term expense of paying a dowry is a far more viable option than struggling to feed, clothe, educate, house, and protect one more family member. When a girl is married, her education will likely cease and she is at risk of premature sexual activity, domestic violence, teenage pregnancy, and health problems.
A girls' honour is closely tied to a families' social standing in Bangladesh. 'Climate change refugees' new to Dhaka may be motivated to marry their daughters to appease these social pressures. For an unemployed father, forced to migrate to the city with his family having lost his livelihood, the pressure to maintain his honour also increases. For men, particularly fathers, feelings and perceptions of emasculation are tied to no longer being able to provide for his family. The risk of a daughter being 'gossiped' about, sexually harassed or considered 'promiscuous' in a city full of strangers furthers the risk of losing familial honour. Protecting a family's honour therefore becomes a driver of child marriage. Additionally, a recent survey suggests that 90% of women have experienced sexual harassment in urban Bangladesh. To avoid emasculation, dishonour, and in an attempt to protect their daughters from sexual attention, fathers are therefore encouraged to marry their daughters off early.
Hidden Connections raises unexplored but increasingly important questions for organisations tackling child marriage. It highlights the need for more research to establish how climate change is affecting girls and what needs to be done to ensure that climate change does not result in an increase in child marriages. In the meantime, governments and NGOs need to ensure that the risk of child marriage is integrated into humanitarian responses dealing with the consequences of climate change. This means ensuring that families' basic needs are met and that they have the resources to care for their daughters without turning to child marriage as a coping strategy. Girls must also have access to quality non-formal/formal education both during and after a crisis until schools can be re-established. No girl should be married early due to circumstances beyond her control, and climate change is no exception to this rule.
This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post, in conjunction with the U.N.'s 22nd Conference of the Parties (COP22) in Morocco (Nov. 7-18), aka the climate-change conference. The series will put a spotlight on climate-change issues and the conference itself. To view the entire series, visit here.