‘Marry before your house is swept away’: Climate change is giving child marriages a boost

The World Health Organisation has estimated that more than 88 per cent of the existing global burden of disease due to climate change occurs in children under the age of five.

Updated: August 12, 2015 10:16 am
Children should be able to participate in resilience building activities at a community level and be consulted in the decision making process affecting their lives. Reuters Photo Children should be able to participate in resilience building activities at a community level and be consulted in the decision making process affecting their lives. Reuters Photo

By Pari Trivedi

‘Marry before your house is swept away’ is what young girls are being advised in Bangladesh, according to a report by Human Rights Watch published in June this year.

“Whatever land my father had… the house he had, went under water in the river erosion and that’s why my parents decided to get me married,” says Sultana M, who was married at age 14, in her testimony to Human Rights Watch.

The report suggests that the high occurrence of natural disasters caused by climate change is one of the key reasons for the child marriage ‘epidemic’ in the country.

While Bangladesh may be declared as one of the most vulnerable countries to climate change, things are not very different for children in its bordering nation, India.

A recent report by Thomson Reuters Foundation states that climate pressures in Sunderbans have led to the rise of ‘new-age orphans’ as parents are migrating to cities in search of livelihood. The story also points to the growing problem of child depression, malnutrition and child trafficking in the region due to climate change. In fact, the situation in Sunderbans is so grim during the monsoons that schools have to be shut as sea water invades classrooms, making teaching impossible.

“The highly fragile ecology of Sunderbans, induced by climate change is witnessing a negative impact on the water, agriculture and health of the people. It’s a causal nexus. Due to climate change, there are frequent floods and cyclones. The salinity level of freshwater goes up and the crop production reduces. As the agricultural output is limited, food security suffers; malnutrition increases and people are forced to migrate. Early marriage is also a cog in the wheel as parents want to marry their girls because they cannot provide for them. This in turn escalates the chances of early childbirth and child mortality.” says Chittapriyo Sadhu, State Programme Manager, Save the Children India. Already, two-thirds of the Indian population depends directly on climate sensitive sectors like agriculture, fisheries and forests.

In 2013, a UNICEF report estimated that by 2050, 25 million more children will be malnourished due to climate change and indicated that children from the poorest families are up to 10 times more likely to bear the brunt of environmental disasters linked to climate change.

The same report also places Bangladesh and India at the top of the list in calculating children’s vulnerability to climate change. Further, climate change will give India an additional five million malnourished children under the age of five, according to a study conducted the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) in 2007.

Need to confront climate change through a child’s lens

It would have been unimaginable some years back to think of dire health consequences like depression and malnutrition in children, due to a changing climate. However, stark examples from Bangladesh and India prove that child health should be at the heart of the climate change debate.

Natural disasters and extreme climatic conditions affect children differently than adults, according to a recent report by Save the Children India. The central government has several policy frameworks and laws for mitigation and preparedness for natural disasters but very little emphasis has been placed on child rights.

The World Health Organisation has estimated that more than 88 per cent of the existing global burden of disease due to climate change occurs in children under the age of five. Every year in India, 8.45 million children less than five years of age are affected by disasters of which, 1.25 million children are malnourished. Visible environmental phenomena that affect children include heat waves, cold waves, cloud bursts and air pollution. In fact, diarrhoea and respiratory infections are the number one cause for child deaths in India.

In a recent series of publications commissioned by medical research journal, the Lancet, researchers concluded that tackling climate change could be the greatest global health opportunity of the 21st century.

Ensuring child protection from climate change

Educating children about climate change is not enough. Children should be able to participate in resilience building activities at a community level and be consulted in the decision making process affecting their lives. Capacity building of the local, regional and national institutions related to public health and disaster risk management will help in better preparedness and in coping with the impacts of climate change on health, education, and livelihoods.

However, the greater burden of financing for child protection should lie with the governments. Air pollution is a major deterrent to child health in India’s urban cities. The Indian government must do more to tackle emissions and improve the air quality of its cities. A 2013 report by Greenpeace predicted that Indian coal power plants kill 120,000 a year. The NDA government’s plans to boost a 100,000-Mw solar energy plan by 2022 should be met adequately even as the pressure builds up to move away from coal fired power plants in India.

There should be a higher uptake by rich countries on allocating funds under the Green Climate Fund for child-centred adaptation and mitigation practices. The new global climate change treaty is expected to be agreed upon and ratified at COP21 in December this year. It must include the voices of children so that it will help in reducing social and economic inequity emerging out of a changing climate.

– The author is Research Communications Coordinator at Young Lives India.