Climate Change

Extreme weather events lead to increase in child marriages: Study

Droughts, floods and other extreme weather events intensify existing problems of gender inequality and poverty that lead families to marry their daughters early

By Susan Chacko
Published: Sunday 03 September 2023
Representative photo from iStock

Extreme weather causes an increase in the occurrence of child, early and forced marriage (CEFM) by intensifying elements of structural oppression, such as gender inequality and poverty, according to a recent study published in the journal International Social Work.

Gender-based violence (GBV) and inequities worsen in extreme weather contexts. This has adverse impacts on women and girls’ resilience during weather extremes and disasters.

Development initiatives might reproduce or ignore gender disparities, without concerted efforts accounting for gender and other social inequalities, the study warned.

Researchers from the Ohio State University, United States, led by Fiona C Doherty did a review of 20 studies published from 2010-2022 connecting droughts, floods and other extreme weather events to increases in child, early and forced marriages in low- and middle-income countries.

The studies were from Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Kenya, Indonesia, Malawi, Nepal, Tanzania, Vietnam and sub-Saharan Africa.

The researchers found that CEFM was used as an adaptive coping strategy to reduce economic vulnerabilities in extreme weather contexts.

“Child marriage is often seen as a coping strategy to reduce economic vulnerability and food insecurity that a family is facing because of a disaster,” Doherty was quoted as saying in a press release by the Ohio State University.

In Bangladesh, daughters were married early after Cyclone Aila in 2009 to reduce their economic and food burden on the household. In Kenya, young brides are sought to help with increased labour demands, such as walking long distances to find food and water.

In Malawi, girls exposed to drought were more likely to be married early compared to those living in non-drought areas.

Bride price and dowry was an important factor in the link between CEFM and extreme weather.

The researchers found that girls in sub-Saharan Africa or Vietnam — where the groom’s family paying a bride price to the bride’s family is local custom — had an increased probability of CEFM during droughts and rainfall shocks. 

But, in regions where dowry is common (bride’s family paying the groom’s) such as India, girls were less likely to get married during a drought year, because the bride’s family could not afford dowry payment.

In several studies, parents resorted to CEFM to protect daughters from sexual violence and avoid family dishonour. Rates of sexual assault often escalate during times of crisis, particularly in evacuation camps or temporary shelters.

The main driver of child marriage is gender inequality. Education and financial control are key to empowering women and girls and allowing them to take their own decisions, the researchers found. 

Educational attainment and CEFM were inversely associated for girls in India and Malawi. Also, the incidence of CEFM decreased in India and Vietnam as parental education increased.

Worrying figures

Every year, 12 million girls get married before adulthood. While years of efforts had led to a decline in the practice, it is now at great risk of rising.

A Down to Earth report dated February 20, 2023, looked at how COVID-19 as well as poverty may have spurred child marriages in India.

The Global Slavery Index 2023 said climate change, along with other environmental factors, has exacerbated modern slavery in Africa. Mre than 3.1 million Africans are in forced marriage and more than 3.8 million in forced labour.

Girls in their early or late adolescence are highly vulnerable to child marriage and ensuring that their education goes uninterrupted and they receive adequate nutrition can go a long way in breaking the cycle.

A number of international conventions and agreements address the issue of child marriage.

For instance, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women covers the rights to protection from child marriage in Article 16.

Other international agreements related to child marriage are:

  1. The Convention on Consent to Marriage, Minimum Age for Marriage and Registration of Marriages
  2. The African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child
  3. The Protocol to the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa

Health professionals and social workers must recognise the complexities and the links between child marriage and extreme weather, which is likely to worsen amid climate change, the study warned.

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