Teenage girls in Kenya's West Pokot country attend a training program organised by ‘IamResponding—a front line girl's rights organisation. Courtesy: Makoye Shigela. - Photo: 2023

Climate Crisis Fuels Child Marriages, FGM in East and Southern Africa

By Kizito Makoye

DAR ES SALAAM, Tanzania | 3 December 2023 (IDN) — At 15, Sarah* was entangled in an early marriage that would change her life forever.

The drought spells in Kotulogh village in Kenya’s West Pokot country had pushed many pastoralist families to the brink of survival.

Sarah’s mother, desperate for money to solve economic woes, married her off for a bride price.

However, Sarah rejected the proposal when it was presented to her. Instead, she fled home, seeking protection from girls’ rights campaigners.

“I didn’t want to be married; I wanted to finish my education,” Sarah says.

Sarah’s refusal, however, angered her mother, who threatened to take her own life. Sarah ultimately succumbed to the pressure. She returned home, only to be circumcised, and she was later wedded to a young man in the village.

However, middle of November, Sarah’s husband was reportedly killed by bandits—leaving her a widow at the age of 16.

Sarah’s story mirrors the plight of many girls in eastern and southern Africa who face increased risk of gender-based violence and harmful practices, including Female Genital mutilation (FGM) and child marriages due to the displacement induced by natural disasters.

In West Pokot, pastoralists constantly search for water and pastures to keep their remaining livestock alive.

Domitila Chesang, the founder of  I_Rep Foundation, an organization that campaigns against FGM and child marriages, says the drought has exacerbated FGM and child marriage not only in Pokot but also in other regions experiencing famine. She adds that cases of girls being married off for bride price to help families survive the drought have become common.

“With many cattle dying from famine and others being stolen, the only way to acquire wealth for families is to marry their girls, who sadly have first to undergo FGM; the reverse dowry paid helps them to achieve more cattle, goats, and money to buy food, “she says

The impact of climate change in West Pokot is strikingly vivid, as girls are increasingly pawned to bail out families from financial woes.

“I cannot imagine a 16-years-old girl becoming a widow,” Chesang lamented.

While FGM was banned in Kenya in 2011, the harmful practice persists. According to a UNFPA report, more than 800,000 girls in Kenya were at risk of undergoing FGM between 2015 and 2030.

Although the prevalence of FGM in West Pokot decreased to 44% from 78%, according to Kenya’s Demographic and Health Survey 2022, the county remains a hotspot for harmful practices, Chesang says.

The number of girls at extreme risk of facing the duo challenges of climate change and child marriage is set to increase by 33% to nearly 40 million globally by 2050, according to Save the Children. The report titled “Girls at the Centre of the Storm: Her Planet, Her Future, Her Solutions” reveals that two-thirds of child marriages occur in regions with higher-than-average climate risks.

As climate change worsens, girls face a higher risk of forced child marriages, making them more vulnerable to sexual exploitation and an increased likelihood of undergoing FGM.

Early marriage significantly impacts a girl’s life. Young brides are less likely to pursue further education, resulting in long-term economic consequences. Additionally, they often experience isolation and an increased risk of physical and sexual violence. Early marriages also raise the likelihood of complications during pregnancy and childbirth.

According to this study, environmental crises are exacerbating child marriages as families grappling with the loss of assets are increasingly resorting to marrying their young daughters.

The researchers emphasize that local social-cultural practices, such as bride price or dowry traditions, significantly shape how environmental factors impact child marriage in different communities.

 They underscore the need for targeted action in areas facing severe environmental threats, as those regions often experience high rates of child marriages.

Devastating toll

In Kasese district, western Uganda, a prolonged drought followed by heavy rains caused floods and landslides affecting homes, schools, and farmlands.

The floods have had a devastating toll on people as families lose their homes, valuable possessions, and crops, plunging them into a desperate struggle for survival.

Manager Sandra Tukwasibwe, program manager for Joy for Children— a local charity working to protect children’s rights, reveals a distressing connection between climate-induced disasters, a surge in child marriages, and sexual exploitation.

 In an interview with IDN, Tukwasibwe says economically strained displaced families in Kasese choose to marry off their daughters for bride prices.

Tukwasibwe says families with 8 to 10 dependents are being crowded into displaced people camps, exposing girls to the risk of sexual violence.

According to her, traditional customs further worsen the crisis as girls reaching puberty become targets for early marriages.

“Young girls are being verbally abused and exposed to sexual violence,” she says

Tukwasibwe says some girls confessed to having engaged in sex with older men in exchange for sanitary towels.

Malawi’s struggle

In Malawi, the changing weather patterns intensify economic hardships, with women and girls shouldering the burden of resource collection.

In the aftermath of Cyclone Freddy, the vulnerable populations face a distressing fate marked by a surge in child marriages and sexual exploitation.

Caleb Ng’ombo, Director of People Serving Girls at Risk (PSGR), a frontline NGO in Malawi, underscores the impact of climate change on precarious situations, leading to forced child marriages and disruptions in education.

“Firstly, it is necessary to accept that climate change is real,” emphasizes Ng’ombo, highlighting the impact of natural disasters like floods and drought.

“For women and children, it is a double tragedy. We see houses being washed away and rendering families homeless. We see teenage girls getting increasingly exposed to extreme levels of sexual violence, such as rape, and families resolving such cases ‘amicably’ by forcing the girl to get married to the rapist,” he laments.

Ng’ombo underscores the breakdown of community social protection systems, leaving families to fend for themselves. “Teenage girls are burdened with the responsibility of family survival, sometimes resorting to early marriages,” he adds.

The  damage extends to education; as Ng’ombo notes, “When natural disasters happen, school infrastructure is affected, and schools are closed indefinitely.” This disruption exposes children to various forms of violence, including sex trafficking, blasphemy, and pornography.

In the aftermath of a cyclone, 16-year-old Esther from Zalewa Village found herself grappling with the challenges of many families. Her family lost their home, and her father’s abandonment left her mother as the sole provider for five children without a source of income. Faced with dire circumstances, Esther’s mother contemplated arranging a marriage for her daughter.

Quick intervention became crucial to prevent this plan from materializing. Ng’ombo states, “We moved in very quickly to thwart this plan and have since put Esther back to school.” Now, efforts have been made to ensure Esther’s education is prioritized, countering the immediate pressures her family encountered post-cyclone.

In the wake of the Cyclone Freddy, PSGR has expanded its interventions with limited resources, nullifying 23 forced child marriages in rural Neno District—a staggering 85% increase from the previous year, Ng’ombo says.

Ng’ombo explains, “Many girls dropped out of school due to demolished school toilets, lack of school fees, and parents using their resources to rebuild lives. Some of these girls were being forced into marriage by their parents.”

“Natural disasters have exacerbated cases of sexual violence and exploitation,” warns Ng’ombo, detailing a significant rise in women turning to prostitution for survival. PSGR recorded a fivefold increase in rescued girls from sex trafficking between March and May in Neno alone, reflecting a broader trend in districts affected by natural disasters.

“The number of women and girls engaging in transactional sex has dramatically risen. We see more women lining up streets at night using prostitution as a means of survival more than ever before,” he says

Disturbingly, the NGO recorded a fivefold increase in rescued girls from sex trafficking between March and May in Neno alone.

“So far, an average of 55 girls rescued from sex trafficking between March and May alone in Neno, compared to 11 girls last year,”

Ng’ombo calls for urgent collective action, emphasizing the need to invest in children, especially girls. “Rich nations contributing to carbon emissions must reverse these trends urgently,” he says, advocating for a multispectral approach and urging governments and communities to increase awareness and take concrete steps to end child marriage.

“Government must ensure every child goes to school and no single child is left behind.”

Child marriage drivers

The analysis conducted by Equality Now—a global women’s rights charity, revealed significant disparities among countries within the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) regarding strengthening legal protection against child marriage.

In Eastern and Southern Africa, approximately 32% of women aged 20 to 24, roughly 50 million individuals, were married before age 18.

To combat this pervasive issue, the SADC Parliamentary Forum adopted the SADC Model Law on Eradicating Child Marriage and Protecting Children Already in Marriages. Still, progress remains slow, with only six out of 16 Southern African countries setting 18 as the minimum age for marriage for both genders without exceptions.

. Notably, progress has been uneven, favoring wealthier families. Positive strides, however, have been observed in Zimbabwe and Uganda, where legal decisions aim to end child marriage, though challenges persist.

Sally Ncube, Equality Now Regional Representative of Southern Africa, emphasizes the need for legal reforms, robust legislative frameworks, and alignment with community norms. She calls for increased collaboration, vigilance, and a united front against child marriages.

“The SADC model law provides a comprehensive framework for action,” says Ncube. “Governments must not only domesticate the model law but also allocate adequate resources, build capacity, and enforce the laws they put in place.”

Ncube stresses the need for parliaments to strengthen oversight of law implementation and create policies where none exist.

“The SADC model law must be integrated into national plans of action, continuously updated, and decentralized to regional levels where child marriages are most prevalent.”

“In Malawi, for instance, national strategies need continuous monitoring and updating. We must learn from each other and share information across borders to foster a united front against this crisis,” she adds.

Ncube insists that children themselves need to be informed about existing laws preventing child marriages. Governments should facilitate knowledge sharing and encourage participation in forums to empower the youth.

Beyond child marriages, Ncube addresses the intersectionality of climate change and sexual exploitation. She highlights the need for disaster risk management, children’s consultation, and a focus on education in infrastructure and emergency response.

“We tend to forget that children need to continue going to school even in the face of climate challenges. Policies should ensure an enabling environment, part of the education curriculum should focus on climate mitigation, and governments must ensure accountability to make education accessible,” Ncube asserts.

Regarding progress in domesticating the SADC model law, Ncube acknowledges some headway but emphasizes the slow pace. Challenges persist, including religious and traditional harmful practices, low awareness, and inconsistent reporting to treaty bodies.

Ncube suggests strengthening the relationship between governments, media, civil society organizations, and businesses.

 “The media can be a powerful ally in raising awareness and influencing political will. Communities should understand the workings of duty bearers, and safeguarding mechanisms must be strengthened,” she notes.

Ncube advocates for holding governments accountable and engaging duty-bearers. She cites ongoing reforms in Zambia’s marriage laws as an example, emphasizing the need for strategic litigation to challenge discrepancies between constitutional age limits and marriage laws.

Ncube calls for increased collaboration, vigilance, and a united front against child marriages. The fight for a future free from this violation demands sustained efforts, legal reforms, and a commitment to safeguarding the rights of the most vulnerable members of society.

*Sarah is not her real name. [IDN-InDepthNews]

Photo: Teenage girls in Kenya’s West Pokot country attend a training program organised by  I_Rep Foundation—a front-line girl’s rights organisation. Courtesy: Makoye Shigela.

This article was produced as a part of the joint media project between The Non-profit International Press Syndicate Group and Soka Gakkai International in Consultative Status with ECOSOC on 3 December 2023.

IDN is the flagship agency of the Non-profit International Press Syndicate.

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