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Climate change and child marriage: A missing link to social security for future

Vijayetta Sharma (Associate Professor, School of Behavioural and Social Sciences, MRIIRS),

Anandajit Goswami (Professor and Director, School of Behavioural and Social Sciences, MRIIRS)

Disclaimer: Views are personal

Human activities on earth have brought a change in the natural system’s behavior through an increase in the frequency of rain, droughts, cyclones, floods, wildfires, etc. Cyclone Freddy, cyclone Mocha, Niger floods, cyclone Idai, and cyclone Kenneth are some of the severe climatic disasters that hit the Asian and African continents in the last 5 years. These disasters have repercussions on human lives in terms of effects on their health, food security, and earnings. It also leads to widespread migration impacting social structures and security.

Around 3.6 billion people around the world inhabit areas that are exposed to the impacts of human-induced climate change disasters which can cause 250,000 additional deaths per year from 2030 to 2050.

These adverse consequences can lead to economic, social, and psychological aftermaths for the families in these regions. The escalating heat waves, increasing floods, rising droughts, and retreat of cyclones have become a new climatic normal in parts of Asia and Africa. It is inferred from the prevalent literature and can be projected that climate disasters will create a large level of migration and an increase in the refugee population in these highly vulnerable regions of Africa and Asia.

Economic vulnerabilities can arise from price increases of staple foods due to reductions or variations in the production of food grains as a result of climatic disasters. Income elasticities of demand for non-agricultural goods and services required for human subsistence in climate disaster-prone zones can further exacerbate humanitarian crises, hunger, and poverty amidst the rise in the cost of living and growing global conflict.

The resultant food value chain loss, loss of labor productivity and employment, food insecurity, and impact on climate induced migration, nutrition, pose an unequal impact on gendered vulnerability within the poor due to the over-representation of women amongst the extremely poor population.

Such climate-induced migration will also, therefore, impact the social structures and systems in the climate-affected, vulnerable zones of Africa and Asia. The majority of these impacts will be localized in nature at the village and household level, though the scale of the human-induced climate change problem is and will be global.

Such localized impacts of migration and climatic disasters will act as a means to affect the existing social structures and systems in villages and households at local levels causing a shift in the cultural traditions. Therefore, human migration from climate disasters can be envisaged to impact and bring a change in various local, social systems, and cultural traditions at the household level. One such local social system and cultural tradition has existed in the form of child marriages in many distant rural villages of various regions of India which belong to the vulnerable zones of human-induced climate disasters.

To illustrate, a region like Bundelkhand in India can become a drought-prone zone in the future as the frequency and intensity of droughts have increased in the region. The monsoon-dependent agriculture sector in the region suffered through reduced outputs with climatic impacts and has become a push factor for climate-induced human migration. The pertinent question to ask is whether such a climate-induced human migration can also bring a change in the cultural pattern of early marriages (i.e. before the age of 18 years) within the village societies of a region like Bundelkhand.

Evidence from another climate vulnerable zone of Indonesia indicates that climate change and related ecological and environmental crises are impacting the drivers of child marriage through an induced impact on sexual and reproductive health and rights. It is being posited that when such rights are affected due to ecological crisis arising from human-induced climate change, it does impact the decision of child marriage.

Globally 21% of girls are impacted by child marriage with the highest rates being prevalent in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. Within Sub-Saharan Africa, Niger (76%), Central African Republic and Chad (61%), Burkina Faso (51%), Mali (54%), Mozambique (53%), South Sudan (52%), contribute to more than 50% of child marriages in the world. As per NFHS-5 (2019-21), India which belongs to South Asia contributed to 23% of child marriages by 18 years and 5% of child marriages by 15 years. Assam, Bihar, Orissa, and Tamil Nadu of India which are the most vulnerable regions exposed to disasters of climate change also belong to the list of states of India contributing largely to early child marriages by 18 years as per NFHS – 5 (2019-21).

Literature shows that girls belonging to families with incomes falling in the lowest quintile are twice as likely to marry before the age of 18 in comparison to the girls in the highest income quintile. It is also shown that girls with only primary education are twice as likely to experience child marriage than girls with secondary or higher education.   

Therefore, the vulnerable regions to human-induced climate disasters in Asia and Africa will observe a change in the manner of the social existence of human life. With the backdrop of such a change, therefore, the development lens needs to capture the well-being of the girls who will be impacted by human-induced climate disasters through migration emerging from climate change. Such climate-induced migration may create a compelling likelihood of child marriages in the long term by denying the girls their human rights, leading to higher rates of sexually transmitted infections, earlier first pregnancies, and higher maternal and neonatal complications. As a result of climate-induced human migration, children’s access to education and employment may be reduced, enhancing the possibility of a child marriage enabling intimate partner violence, domestic abuse for girls, and female genital mutilation.

The global history of mass migration from wars, and natural disasters has also indicated such a phenomenon in the civilizational journey of humanity. In an unstable world of polycrisis with wars, border tensions, forced and unforced migrations, geopolitical turmoil, and rising global warming (with the Earth crossing the tipping point of 1.5 degree celsius), it is high time that we start to assess and understand the impending, transcending impacts of climate change on child marriage.

The crisis of migration reinforced by climate science is thwarting at our doorsteps and for countries of Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia along with other parts of the world. It is imperative to understand the intensity of the rising crisis of the girl child in the history of human civilization; take immediate actions to safeguard their human rights and build the resilience of our future generations.

It is also essential to have constructive plans to save the Earth from the shocks and impacts of climate change so that the spillover effects of climate-induced human migration are minimized.  Further, the government’s strategic interventions through global governance frameworks and systems are to be utilized effectively for devising corrective actions to reduce the economic, and social cost of climate-induced human migration on child marriage and intimate violence.

Literature shows that the impacts of the climatic crisis are catalyzed through various facilitating factors like access to education and other resources, which need cognizance of the governments to control the spillover effects in the form of child marriage. In the ongoing intensity of global polycrisis, we cannot afford to be reticent and have to be restless enough to take immediate actions for the resilience building of our future generation from the impacts of climate change.

To have corrective actions for the culturally infused traditions as a result of migration and economic distress, both governments and societies need to work hand in hand to diffuse the impacts of climate change on gendered inequality entrenched in society in the form of child marriage.

One of the ways to secure economic and social stability is to nudge people towards socially secure, respectable, wellbeing-oriented behaviour of protecting a girl child from child marriage or protecting them from abuse, and intimate violence which can arise due to human-induced impacts of climate change in the climate-vulnerable zones.

Nudging can help by introducing alternative, complementing currencies for promoting socially suitable behavior of people which does not push the girl child towards marriage or violence or abuse. To incentivize the nudging, alternative currencies can be introduced in local communities which are prone to climate vulnerable impacts, and further such communities can be incentivized to use the complementary currencies or tokens to carry out their economic or social activities in local community structures and villages. Application of such local community currencies is already in place in Belgium, Japan, and other parts of the world.

Another systematic effort by the government can be through “assisted migration”, rehabilitation to the safer zones with the aid of disaster support for psychological recovery of families and girl child, ensured social survival of the population vulnerable to child marriage from climate change impacts, and assured economic activity. The plan of rehabilitation needs to take into account the settlement of cultural groups with similar setups in closer proximity which guarantees a sense of social security among the new settlements and ensures cultural symmetry for social transactions.

Economic and social security could reduce the probability of the occurrence of the cultural practice of child marriage. Factors like the routinization of traditions in the culture, belief systems of the cultural units, financial tradeoffs with respect to monetary gains, and perception of security to the girl child in terms of better education and food security may determine the final child marriage decision. There may be cultures where child marriage is practiced as a tradition. These culture-led rigidities and belief systems need policy directions, and actions with the onset of human-induced impacts of climate disasters by the government. The policy directions can be oriented to identify the cause of child marriage and propose interventions in a phased manner with respect to their level of assimilation into the cultural traditions. The government interventions are necessary to free the girl children from the bonding of early marriage so that they can overcome the cultural loop of domination, marital assaults, early pregnancies, and lost opportunities for education.

The future of humanity needs girls with secured child rights and not girl brides with stolen childhoods. Such a future is necessary to transform the girl child to an empowered woman taking social, political, and national responsibilities with pride and wisdom for humanity.  



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