scorecardChild marriage rates in countries like India are witnessing a spike due to climate change-worsened extreme weather
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Child marriage rates in countries like India are witnessing a spike due to climate change-worsened extreme weather

Child marriage rates in countries like India are witnessing a spike due to climate change-worsened extreme weather
SustainabilitySustainability4 min read
What is horror? Is it the father enduring the eerie silence of a sleepless night, rummaging through his troubled mind to scrounge up other ways to protect his child from the chaos of war? Or is it his young daughter, who has, quite responsibly, already started reminiscing the friends she'd soon have to leave behind for a man three times her age; the same path that many like her had been subjected to, in hopes that they wouldn't be taken as spoils of their country's strife?

An increase in child marriages during times of humanitarian crises, most notably during war, is a well documented fact. Parents often view marriage as a safeguard for their childrens' future; a cruel barter for a few more years without having to learn of the almost-inevitable terrors of sexual violence.

Sadly, this is an ongoing reality for many low- and middle-income countries, India included. In the absence of gender empowerment and education, a daughter blurs into a commodity, more often than anyone would want or like to admit. And when catastrophes drain families of their resources, it becomes harder for the parents to squint and distinguish between the two.
Climate change spurring the commodification of daughters
A systematic review of 20 studies has shown that extreme weather events, such as droughts and floods, have led to a marked increase in child, early and forced marriages in low- and middle-income countries such as ours.

If you're wondering how the two are connected, it's a good question to ask. Primarily because, at the surface level, they're not, and worse yet, they don't have to be.

Fiona Doherty, lead researcher on the study, explains the situation as this: "What these disasters do is exacerbate existing problems of gender inequality and poverty that lead families to child marriage as a coping mechanism."

In layman’s terms, this means that instead of a straightforward correlation — such a heat melting ice — the child marriage crises arises from the way less-developed nations view their daughters almost as if they were a good or a service. This is also the same reason child marriage among boys is just one-sixth that among girls — a lamentable, but important statistic in this context.

The commodification of daughters often reduces them to "burdens" to be sold off when the family is unable to cope with the disaster-aggravated stresses of economic vulnerability and food insecurity. A Bangladesh study showed that 11-14-year-old girls were 50% more likely to be married in times of a prolonged heatwave.

In fact, even in the absence of sufficient research examining the linkage between climate change and child marriages — an angle that certainly needs more attention — there exist many examples of families marrying their young daughters off to lessen the burden on themselves. Many instances of such marriages were observed after droughts destroyed water and livestock resources in Kenya, and after Cyclone Aila ravaged through Bangladesh.
How will the upcoming El Niño drought season affect child marriage in India?
India is a country of a billion relentlessly reliant on agriculture. Thus, stable weather fuels the growing country and lubricates its gears of development — a system that climate change keeps flicking spanners into. And, as with most things, this has rippled into disastrous consequences on the condition of child marriages in our country as well.

Furthermore, in the 22 El Niño occurrences since 1901, 16 of these have resulted in drought-like conditions in our country. We stand on the precipice of another El Niño event that has already begun to take a toll on our rainfall, with many sources forecasting a 'severe phase' in the books. However, in a bizarrely twisted chain of events, this might actually prove to be "good" for child marriage in the country.

The fact that many Indian child marriages often rely on the incoming dowry from the arrangement means that when drought years transpire, a lack of dowry-funding often deters the transaction. A small and scornful win that inevitably still reduces the worth of women and children to mere economics.

The cold hard truth is that as long as gender-disparities continue to exist, many children will remain dispensable; to be kept when the family is able, to be sold off for dowry or protection when the family is not.

Education helped. The research found that educated girls were less likely to be married off early. Even more educated parents were less likely to marry off their daughters. However, in the absence of stricter laws and better economic assistance, it will take a long time to reach a sufficient level of gender equality quickly enough. Choice and education can be powerful resources, and neither can be utilised to its full potential without the other.

When parched young girls look over their cracked and ungrowing fields, we must ensure they feel supported, and not a growing fret of the new life that they would inevitably have to lead soon. Climate change is a largely human-created phenomenon, and it is upon us to correct our mistakes at the earliest.

The findings of this research have been published in International Social Work and can be accessed here.

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