Marriage of survival: Will climate change mean more child brides?

After Cyclone Idai battered southern Malawi last year, the hotline Weston Msowoya manages was flooded with calls. They were reporting cases of young girls being married off in the tented camps hastily established by the United Nations Refugee Agency and other aid groups to house some 94,000 people displaced by one of the deadliest storms to ever hit the southern hemisphere.

By the time it had subsided, more than 1,000 people in three countries were dead. Some 1.85 million people needed support in Mozambique alone – from housing to food to healthcare, particularly in the port city of Beira, a staggering 90 percent of which had been destroyed. In Malawi, Msowoya was watching another tragedy unfold: he recorded 74 child marriages just in the camps he was able to reach (others were blocked because swathes of the country were under water).

It was double the number of underage brides he normally saw as executive director of the Centre for Community and Youth Development, a nonprofit in the capital, Lilongwe that monitors child marriage through community outreach activities that include a hotline advertised through word-of-mouth, pamphlets, and door-to-door visits. While marriage before age 18 was outlawed in Malawi last year, nearly 50 percent of girls in the country wed earlier.

“It’s heartbreaking. Imagine the trauma they’re going through,” said Msowoya, thinking of his 11-year-old daughter, the same age as some of the girls married after the cyclone. “They take men as their only hope of survival.”

Thanks to climate change, extreme weather events like Cyclone Idai will likely ramp up dramatically in the coming years, including more devastating flooding from rising sea levels and storms with unprecedented severity. Droughts have already increased in frequency and intensity, particularly in Africa. A growing body of evidence is showing that what Msowoya observed is not an anomaly: the pernicious effects of climate change are increasing child marriage.

“When there is a crisis, when people really feel that they have a threat to their survival, that’s when there is a push to get your daughter married off because parents feel that they’re not able to support them,” explained Nitya Rao, a professor of gender and development at the University of East Anglia. “It’s best for me to get my daughters married off sooner because I can’t take care of them and they’re not safe,” she added, explaining how parents reason through their difficult decision.

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