Does Climate Change Increase the Risk of Child Marriage? a Look at What We Know - and What We Don't - with Lessons from Bangladesh and Mozambique

By McLeod, Christie; Barr, Heather et al. | Columbia Journal of Gender and Law, Fall 2019 | Go to article overview

Does Climate Change Increase the Risk of Child Marriage? a Look at What We Know - and What We Don't - with Lessons from Bangladesh and Mozambique


McLeod, Christie, Barr, Heather, Rall, Katharina, Columbia Journal of Gender and Law


INTRODUCTION

Beauty (a pseudonym) does not know exactly how old she was when she got married. She is now around forty years old, and her oldest child, a son, is twenty-five. She lives in a rural village in Noakhali district in Bangladesh. In an interview with Human Rights Watch ("HRW"), Beauty said:

   River erosion took our house, so we came here ... We didn't know
   anyone, so we were vulnerable, so my husband was able to threaten
   us. He told my father, "I will marry your daughter, or I will burn
   your house down." My father had refused to give me to him because
   he already had a wife, but then he threatened us. (1)

Her husband eventually abandoned her and their three children to return to his first wife. As a single mother, Beauty relies on agricultural work to feed her children and often loses the chance to work due to regular flooding in her area. Even though tuition is waived for primary school in Bangladesh, she was forced to take her two daughters out of school after class five and class three, (2) as they could not afford to purchase school supplies and uniforms. She arranged marriages for both daughters when they reached age fifteen, saying she knew "the right age to get married is 18," but that she did not have enough money to feed them.

While the rate of child marriage in Bangladesh is high across all parts of the country and all demographic groups, research shows that some girls are at higher risk than others. A heightened incidence of child marriage is associated with living in rural areas, receiving less education, and poverty.

Beauty's story raises questions about the role that riverbank erosion and extreme flooding--environmental changes exacerbated by climate change--may play in driving child marriage. Recent research suggests that there is a correlation between an increased risk of child marriage in Bangladesh and areas affected by natural disasters that are predicted to occur more often and/or with greater severity as a result of climate change. (3) In countries such as Bangladesh, where both child marriage rates and poverty levels are high, the impacts of climate change on income security and options for income generation, if not mitigated, may increase the incentive for families to marry their daughters off earlier than they otherwise would.

Perhaps the most pivotal injustice of climate change is that those least responsible for the emissions that contributed to climate change are and will be most impacted by the effects of climate change. As such impacts occur, certain populations including women and children are likely to be affected disproportionately.

While child marriages are almost always the result of multiple interconnected factors, this Article will examine the existing evidence of a connection between the impacts of climate change and child marriage and analyze some of the research and monitoring gaps. Are existing climate change policies, as well as measures taken to reduce and eliminate child marriage, addressing this link? What are the human rights obligations of governments to protect girls from child marriage, including in times of disaster?

Part 1 of the Article summarizes the current state of research about the causes and consequences of child marriage, followed by a review of the available research on connections between child marriage and climate change. It will examine the extent to which evidence has been gathered on this topic and assess the different ways in which impacts of climate change have been found to influence decisions regarding child marriage. It will argue that, while there are significant gaps in the research, there is growing evidence that climate change may exacerbate the rate of child marriage.

Part II presents two country-specific case studies of the potential connection between climate change and child marriage in Bangladesh and Mozambique, two countries that are highly vulnerable to climate change and have rates of child marriage among the highest in the world. …

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