‘One less mouth to feed’: Climate disasters linked to child marriage in Bangladesh

Originally published: Dialogue Earth/The Third Pole

Rukhsar Begum* is a 21-year-old woman from Rowmari, an area of Kurigram district in the north of Bangladesh. She and her family were displaced from their home on a riverine island on the Brahmaputra river during devastating floods that hit the area in 2015.

She now lives in Korail, a slum in the capital Dhaka, with her three children — two daughters aged 7 and 5, and a 3-year-old son.

Rukhsar was once hopeful about attending school. But she now faces a reality far removed from classrooms, as she was married off at the age of 15.

“I had a lot of dreams. But since the floods, it feels like that dream was drifting away on the river that took our home,” she told Dialogue Earth.

Rukhsar’s father, Ahmed Shakil*, expressed helplessness as he spoke about the decision to marry his daughter off at such a young age.

“It’s not what we wanted for her. But it was a fight for survival. I lost my ancestral home in the 2007 flood, then relocated to a slightly upper char [riverine island], and lost that home too in 2015. All my agricultural land was washed away and became a part of the river. Migrating to Dhaka was the only escape,” he said.

The family migrated from Kurigram to Dhaka with the help of Noor Chowdhury*, who had migrated before them to the capital. Chowdhury lived in the Korail slum and drove rickshaws to make ends meet. Two years later, Shakil agreed to marry Rukhsar off to the 37-year-old Chowdhury.

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Korail, in the capital city Dhaka, is one of Bangladesh’s largest slums. It is often the destination for individuals and families displaced by extreme weather events, which are on the rise due to human-caused climate change (Image: Alamy)

“If marrying her to someone meant we had one less mouth to feed, what choice did we have? Our jamai [son-in-law] saved us from dying when we lost everything,” said Shakil.

Rukhsar’s story mirrors the grim realities faced by an increasing number of girls from disaster-prone areas in Bangladesh forced into underage marriages.

Under the Child Marriage Restraint Act (1929), the legal age of marriage in Bangladesh is 18 years for a female and 21 years for a male. This is too often flouted. According to Unicef, Bangladesh has the highest prevalence of child marriage in South Asia, ranking eighth in the world.

report published in 2023 by the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics revealed that at least 41.6% of women married before the age of 18. Worse, it revealed that this proportion was going up. In 2022, 40.9% of women were found to have been married before turning 18. In 2021, the number was 32.4%, and in 2020, it was 31.3%.

Rukshar’s husband, however, sees their knot in pragmatic terms. “Marrying young? It’s not a sin, but rather I think I saved the family. We are not unhappy. We have three children,” Chowdhury said.

None of the daughters of Chowdhury and Rukshar go to school. When asked about the age he plans to marry off his daughters, Chowdhury deferred to religious belief, saying, “It’s not in my hands. Birth, death, and marriage are fixed by Almighty Allah.”

In the same slum as Rukhsar and Chowdhury, a 14-year-old girl interviewed by Dialogue Earth shared her fears about being married.She is also a climate migrant, having moved with her family from Barisal division’s Bhola district after their home wasdestroyed by Cyclone Midhili in 2023. Their land, too, was lost to the Meghna river’s bank erosion.

“I hear my parents talk at night about my marriage. They think I’m asleep, but I hear everything. I am scared,” she said.

The social impact of climate disasters

In 2022, an International Rescue Committee (IRC) study highlighted a 39% increase in child marriages directly linked to climate change impacts.

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Residents of Bhola district moving towards shelter during a storm in 2014. Nearly 15 million Bangladeshis were displaced due to disasters in the last decade. (Image: Mohammad Ponir Hossain / Alamy)

The IRC’s research in disaster-prone areas such as Barisal, Bhola, Khulna, and Satkhira identified economic hardship, societal pressures, spikes in food prices, and financial crises as key drivers of child marriage following disasters.

According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, nearly 15 million Bangladeshis were displaced due to disasters in the period 2014-23, with most displaced due to storms (10.3 million) and floods (4.3 million). 2019, 2020, 2022 and 2023 were particularly bad years, with more than a million displaced in each of them, and more than 4 million displaced in both 2019 and 2020.

The people living along the country’s 710-kilometre low-lying coastal region are most vulnerable. “Every day around 2,000 people migrate to Dhaka from coastal parts of the country, 70% of them due to natural disasters and climate change,” Atiqul Islam, mayor of Dhaka North City Corporation, told Dialogue Earth.

Dhaka is home to four million people living across 5,000 slums, while Chattogram’s 200 slums house nearly 1.4 million migrants. No data exists to show how many of these are climate migrants.

The government estimates, though, that by 2050, one in every seven Bangladeshis will be displaced due to climate change. Many of them will, inevitably, migrate to bigger cities like Dhaka in the hopes of finding some way to earn their livelihood.

Girls face greater risk

report by global NGO Save the Children included Bangladesh among 10 nations considered “top 10 child marriage-climate hotspot countries”.

The NGO’s report also issued a stark warning: by 2050, nearly 40 million girls in these countries could be at extreme risk of enduring the harsh realities of child marriage driven by the climate crisis.

Wahida Zaman Shithi, health communications lead at Noora Health, who has worked in the disaster-prone Kurigram region for over a decade to combat child marriage, stresses the direct connection between disasters, displacement, socio-economic consequences and the prevalence of child marriage.

“Child marriage, as dire as it is, has become a coping mechanism when a family struggles for survival. After encountering multiple disasters and facing frequent displacement, the socio-economic strain can be overwhelming. They can’t even ensure a permanent sanitation facility and a reliable source of drinking water for their children. There is also fear of their [child’s] safety and security when it’s a daughter,” she said.

A 2021 study titled ‘The Mapping of Climate Change-Related Vulnerabilities and Child Marriage in Bangladesh’ also highlighted the devastating effects of environmental disasters on family stability, which is another driver for child marriages.

Mohammad Bellal Hossain, a professor at Dhaka University’s Department of Population Sciences and co-author of the study, told Dialogue Earth, “During our fieldwork for the research, we observed an uptick in girls being married off in the aftermath of floods and riverbank erosion.” He added, “When climate-exacerbated disasters like floods, riverbank erosion, cyclones, and storms destroy both public and private assets, the fallout goes much deeper than the visible damage.”

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Many schools in Sadar and Upazila have been damaged by floods in Bandarban, Bangladesh. Damage is becoming visible after water recedes from some schools. The school has stopped teaching students. Due to heavy rainfall for six consecutive days, the water of the Sangu and Matamuhuri rivers crossed the limit, causing floods in almost all upazilas of Bandarban. (Credit Image: © Mohammed Shajahan/ZUMA Press Wire)

“Families whose homes are destroyed face not just the loss of property but they have to migrate as well, which escalates their economic and social vulnerabilities. During these calamities, when schools are damaged or destroyed, it interrupts the education of children, particularly girls, placing them at higher risk of child marriage. In such critical conditions, families resort to marrying off their daughters as a way to cope,” Professor Hossain explains.

The IRC study also illustrated how post-disaster challenges significantly contribute to child marriage.

It noted that 86.1% of girls experienced increased domestic duties, 37.4% faced greater caregiving responsibilities, and 30.9% lost educational resources — “factors that often lead families to consider marriage as a solution,” said Hossain.

He also added that the delays in the resumption of educational services can further exacerbate the risk of child marriage as the parents start viewing of them ‘economic burdens’.

Meanwhile, a field visit to climate change-exacerbated disaster-prone rural areas in Bangladesh showed the scenario of child marriage grimmer than it could be visualised from a slum in the capital city of the nation.

A parent in Kurigram’s riverine island along Jinjiram river reflects on the difficult decision to marry off their 13-year-old daughter to a much older man from Mymensingh — a slightly upland — during the Covid pandemic in 2021.

“It’s not something we’re proud of, but we have to do as we feel is necessary for her safe survival. If she’s married, she’ll have some stability, something we couldn’t give her,” the mother said.

A Dhaka-based journalist Rayhan Kabir Shuvro who hailed from the region said, “Families in this part of the country are always on quest for a secure shelter or just trying to manage three square meals a day.”

“The suffering caused by floods, and river erosion is unimaginable unless you see it with your own eyes. It pushes families to often move from one riverine island (char) to another. One may relocate five to six times in their lifetime. When they are left with nothing, out of desperation, they marry off their daughters,” he added.

In areas like Rowmari, Chilmari, Bhurungamari, Rajarhat, and Char Rajibpur of Kurigram district homes and livelihoodsget swept away every year due to floods and riverbank erosion.

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Map: Research titled “The Mapping of Climate Change-Related Vulnerabilities and Child Marriage in Bangladesh” funded by Share-net Bangladesh.

Shuvro pointed out that although the rate of child marriage in Kurigram districtdecreased to 46.8% in 2022 from over 65% in previous years, “the numbers remain high and the reality on the ground is even harsher.”

Shuvro highlighted that people in the region often justify the practice by resorting to religious beliefs. “Once a girl reaches puberty, she is ready for marriage,” is a common perception that prevails here.

“It’s shocking but true – girls as young as 10 getting married, and by 11, some are already mothers. It has become a way of life here, trying to find some stability in a world that’s constantly shifting under their feet,” Shuvro shed light on the dire realities in the region.

IRC Bangladesh Director Hasina Rahman said, “Today in Bangladesh, half of the girls are married before their 18th birthday, while 22% are married before the age of 15.”

“This situation is, however, more volatile for the girls living in coastal areas, who are facing saltwater intrusion, food insecurity and poverty, irregular rain patterns, rising temperatures and heightened frequency and intensity of disasters,” she added.

Saltwater woes for coastal girls

Rahima Khatun*, a 17-year-old divorcee with one girl child, lives in the Gabura union of Satkhira’s Shyamnagar. Her mother, Jebunnesa*, shared, “We married Rahima off at 14 to a relatively well-off local family. Rahima had various problems, including lower abdomen pain due to menstruation. We consulted several local doctors but found no cost-effective solution.”

Hoping marriage, and conceiving children would resolve her health issues, Jebunnesa arranged for her daughter’s marriage. “We informed her in-laws before the marriage, and they had no objections. We hoped she would lead a better life, able to eat three meals a day, but the marriage did not last,” the mother said.

Their family had faced destruction tohomes and crops from multiple storms, cyclones, and flash floods. Struggling to survive day-to-day, Rahima never had the chance to attend school and had to work from a young age to help the family’s income.

As the mother continued speaking, tears welled up in her eyes. Wiping them with the back of her hand, she continued, “A year and a half into the marriage, Rahima gave birth to a girl. But her in-laws did not want a girl child, and her lower abdomen pain worsened. They sent Rahima back to me with her daughter. Now, how am I supposed to provide for them? How am I supposed to manage her treatment? My daughter’s family ended before it could even begin.”

This story is not singular along the southern coast of Bangladesh, whererising sea levels and shrimp farming have elevated saltwater intrusion, severely limiting freshwater availability.

A study by the Bangladesh Soil Resource Institute found that53% of the coastal regions are directly affected by salinity in water — which makes life harder for people in places like Satkhira, Barguna, and Bagerhat. Most girls from poor families in these areasend up drinking saline water.

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The effect of salt water is more in the coastal areas of Bangladesh. People in this region suffer a lot for fresh water. Amina Begum is collecting fresh water from a dirty pond at Sarankhola in Bagerhat, Bangladesh. SK Hasan Ali / Alamy Stock Photo

“This salinity causes severe health issues for girls such as skin diseases and hair loss,” said Sohanur Rahman, founder and coordinator of YouthNet Global, a climate justice advocacy network. He explained that continuous use of saline water leads to permanent skin diseases and hair loss by the time girls are 18 to 20 years old,also darkening their skin.

“In Satkhira, finding a marriage partner becomes very difficult for girls with skin diseases, darker skin tones, and without hair. So, many parents feel pressured to marry off their daughters early, between the ages of 10 and 15, fearing that they will become burdensome later on,” Rahman said.

The harsher part is that these women start showing signs of skin diseases and hair loss mostly in their 20s and “when it happens, their husbands leave them for younger girls aged less than 15, and they end up back at their parents’ homes with two or three children,” Rahman added.

Health communication expert Wahida Zaman Shithi pointed out another major issue facing women and girls in coastal areas: the absence of sanitary pads, leading them to use cloth instead.

“More than 80% of adolescent girls in coastal Bangladesh use old clothes during their menstrual periods, which they wash in saltwater before reusing. This practice is extremely harmful to their uterine health,” she explained, citing the “Bangladesh National Hygiene Baseline Survey” conducted by the government of Bangladesh.

Wahida further said that increased salinity from climate change compels girls in these regions to use pills to delay menstruation due to inadequate menstrual hygiene options which endangers their reproductive health.

The prolonged use of these pills canlead to infertility.

“Given these risks, parents become desperate to marry their daughters off early, seeking a suitable husband in regions less affected by salinity. Often, they relocate to urban areas like Dhaka’s slums or other larger cities,” Wahida added.

* Names have been changed to protect the identity of vulnerable respondents.