By Mabel van Oranje,
Activist to end child marriage

Young participant at a Girls Club organized by CONAMUCA, Dominican Republic. GirlsFirstFund/Asia Pimentel

Imagine you are a parent struggling to feed your family, as a severe drought has affected your livelihood. Marrying your daughter off means one less mouth to feed.

Imagine you are a young girl who loves learning, but whose school was destroyed in the latest cyclone. Without access to education, might you end up in a child marriage?

Reflecting on these and similar cases, I am reminded of the feminist slogan ‘the personal is political’. For families across the world, the climate crisis is deeply personal.
For families across the world, the climate crisis is deeply personal.”
Child marriage affects 12 million girls every year; around the globe, one girl is married every three seconds. This has a devastating impact on their education, health, security and economic prospects. I have the pleasure to work together with many in a vibrant movement – girls, young people, activists, communities, religious and traditional leaders, governments, donors, regional and international organisations and researchers – who are focused on ending this human rights violation.

In order to end child marriage and improve girls’ lives, we promote girls’ rights, voices and leadership; work with families and communities to change social norms; provide a wide range of services, including education; and encourage supportive legal and policy frameworks.
Activists in our movement are ringing alarm bells about the impact of environmental crises on girls’ lives. Their advocacy is substantiated by qualitative and quantitative data showing that extreme weather events, from droughts and heatwaves to floods and cyclones, have all been linked to increases in child marriage. It is easy to understand why. Environmental crises exacerbate drivers of child marriage - including poverty, displacement and insecurity - while also reducing protective factors such as education and supportive programmes.

When people face upheaval, disruption and disasters, their responses tend to be shaped by existing norms and inequalities. Within communities in which girls are valued less than boys, and child marriage already occurs, it is daughters who are married to relieve the financial burden created by a crisis. And it is daughters, not sons, who are more likely to be taken out of school to make the now longer journeys to collect water.

In sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, many of the countries with the greatest vulnerability to extreme weather events are also those that have the highest rates of child marriage.

Mabel van Oranje in Nepal visiting organisations leading work to end child marriage. Sasithon Photography for VOW for Girls/Girls First Fund

Girls’ voices and insighTs matter.”

Girls in these countries are disproportionately impacted by the climate crisis, even though they produce negligible levels of greenhouse gas emissions. With worsening global warming, rising sea levels, and young and fast-growing populations in many of these countries, many more girls are at risk of being affected – now, and in the future.

Despite the documented impact on girls, the world is not meaningfully including them in climate solutions. While climate plans and investments increasingly recognise gender, they are not adequately child-responsive and mostly ignore the needs of girls.

For example, too few national climate plans mention girls, and of the key multilateral climate funds serving the UNFCC and Paris Agreement, less than 4% of their projects “explicitly and meaningfully consider girls.” This needs to urgently change.

What should be done? First, climate investments must not only be scaled but also recognise the risks that specific groups – including girls – face. For example, in the wake of extreme weather events, response plans must have a greater focus on girls’ safety, schooling, and access to sexual and reproductive health services. Second, communities need long-term support to change norms around the value of girls and their understanding of the harms of marriage.

This way, when emergencies do occur, families may consider their choices differently. Finally, girls need to be active participants in the design and implementation of climate solutions. Girls’ voices and insights matter.

The World Bank and ICRW have estimated that child marriage is costing nations trillions of dollars. Girls who do not marry are better educated and skilled, and their children are healthier and less likely to live in poverty. Education and child marriage are closely connected, and every additional year of a girl’s schooling has been linked to improvements in a country’s resilience to climate-related disasters.

It is clear that girls have a lot to contribute to a more just, equitable and climate-resilient world.

Ensuring that climate investments recognise girls’ needs will benefit not only them, but also their families, communities and even nations. It is simple; a world that works for girls is a more prosperous and climate-resilient one for everyone.

Let girls be girls, not brides – also in a world affected by the climate crisis.

Photo: Pippa Ranger/Department for International Development

a world that works for girls is a more prosperous and climate-resilient one for everyone.”
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Oluwaseun Ayodeji Osowobi