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. It also reviews laws and policies adopted by Bangladesh and Mozambique to cope with climate change and to reduce child marriage, and what lessons these efforts provide for other countries facing similar challenges.
Part III reviews relevant obligations of governments under international human rights law and within the international climate change regime. In Part IV, the Article proposes measures to ensure that climate change mitigation efforts are grounded in an understanding of the gendered ways in which climate change affects women and girls, including through increased child marriage, and that anti-child marriage efforts take into account the impacts of climate change.
Is There a Relationship Between Climate Change and Child Marriage?
The Prevalence of Child Marriage, Its Drivers, and Consequences
According to the United Nations Children's Fund ("UNICEF"), over 700 million women around the world today were married before the age of eighteen. More than one-third of these women (over 250 million) were married before their fifteenth birthday. (4) Nearly every two seconds, another girl under the age of eighteen is married--a total of about twelve million girls each year. (5)
Child marriage, defined as a marriage where at least one of the parties is under the age of eighteen, (6) occurs in every region of the world. Niger has the highest rate of child marriage in the world, with more than three-quarters of its girls married before age eighteen (seventy-six percent). (7) After Bangladesh, India has the highest rate of child marriage in Asia, with forty-seven percent of girls married by age eighteen. (8) Nicaragua has the highest rate in Latin America, with thirty-five percent of girls married by age eighteen. (9) Child marriage is also legal--and occurring--in the United States and in European countries including Spain, Italy, Belgium, Austria, and the United Kingdom. (10)
In the United States alone--where children can legally marry in forty-eight out of fifty states under some circumstances--an estimated 248,000 children were married (mainly girls to adult men) between 2000 and 2010. (11) In eighteen states, children of any age can marry in some circumstances, with no absolute minimum age. (12)
The decision for a child to marry--whether made by parents, other family members, or a child her or himself--is often shaped by a web of intersecting factors, including poverty, access to education, social pressure and norms, harassment and intimidation, and the continued practices of dowry and brideprice. (13)
Poverty is a chief determinant of child marriage. According to the United Nations Population Fund ("UNFPA"), a girl whose family's income falls within the lowest quintile is more than twice as likely to marry before her eighteenth birthday as a girl whose family's income is within the highest quintile. (14) In many countries where there is a high prevalence of child marriage, it is common for married girls to live with their husbands' families; for poor families this both creates disincentives to invest in daughters' education and incentives to marry girls off early to remove a financial burden.
Another key predictor of child marriage is education. (15) The longer a girl stays in school, the greater the likelihood that she will not marry as a child. According to UNFPA, girls "with only a primary education are twice as likely to marry or enter into a union under eighteen as are those with secondary or higher education. And girls with no education are three times as likely to marry before eighteen as those with secondary or higher education." (16) According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, more than 130 million girls around the world were not in school in 2014. (17)
Girls face many barriers to education, including discriminatory practices by governments, schools, and educators, as well as harmful gender norms within their own communities. Poverty is a major barrier to education, and one that often disproportionately affects girls, due to gender discrimination--when families cannot afford to educate all of their children, they often prioritize boys. While many countries have eradicated tuition fees for primary education, associated costs--including exam fees, writing supplies, books, and uniforms--continue to keep many children out of school. For example, in Bangladesh, HRW found that even an exam fee equaling $0.13 USD was unaffordable for some families. (18)
Social pressures and harmful gender norms sometimes encourage child marriage. In some communities, puberty is perceived as an indicator that a girl is ready to be married. (19) Child marriage is sometimes seen by families as a way to ensure that a girl does not engage in a romantic or sexual relationship outside of marriage, particularly in communities in which extra-marital relationships are seen as harming the reputation of the family or the ability of the girl to marry. (20)
Early pregnancies can lead to pressure for children to marry. In many countries, the stigma surrounding pregnancies that occur out of wedlock may cause unwed pregnant girls to feel they must get married urgently. (21) Boys who are expecting fathers may also be under pressure to marry. (22) Where this stigma is severe, even the fear of pregnancy may trigger a marriage among young people who are sexually active. (23)
In some communities, families that resist marrying their daughters off face harassment, intimidation, and even assault. (24) For example, HRW documented an instance in Bangladesh in which a boy feared his fourteen-year-old classmate would marry someone else, so he raped her "with the specific intention of forcing her to marry him." (25) While the girl was too afraid to tell her parents, they found out after she became pregnant as a result of the rape. Fearing that the family's reputation would be harmed if community members knew about the rape, the family did not report it to the police; instead, the girl...