Sexual and reproductive health and rights are crucial human rights because of their various practical norms. Women worldwide are suffering from violation of SRHR as they are the focal point of reproduction, and their sexual and reproductive rights are greatly ignored. Child marriage is one of the main culprits that pushes women to many aspects of violation of SRR, and is also a violation of SRR. Bangladesh has 38 million child brides (UNICEFF, 2020). So to know about SRHR in Bangladesh, assessing child marriage induced violation of SRHR is essential. Furthermore, climate change, what we are facing together as human beings, fuels child marriage and hinders progress that we, collectively, have made so far in child marriage and SRHR as both independent and combined domains.
Despite many factors of violation of SRHR, this essay will only examine how child marriage alone can impact the violation of many components of SRHR and how climate change is minimizing years of efforts achieving SRHR by influencing child marriage through direct or/and indirect manners. The components of SRHR that are compromised by child marriage are – choosing their sexual partners; deciding whether, when, and whom to marry, how many children to have; deciding whether, when, and by what means to have a child or children, and choosing of safe and effective contraceptive methods; acquiring safe and effective antenatal, childbirth, and postnatal care.
Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights and Child Marriage
Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR) is comprised of sexual health, sexual rights, reproductive health, and reproductive rights (to learn more, see Starrs et al., 2018). Language surrounding SRHR has been evolving over the last 20-25 years, and the community recognizes that SRHR components are related to each other and have complex relations. Program Action of the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) was the first global agreement to create a common language for SRHR. It listed the elements of reproductive health care – reproductive tract infections, maternal health care, family planning, and prevention and appropriate treatment of infertility, education on sexuality and reproductive health, safe abortion where not against the law, and sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV/AIDS. ICPD is credited with shifting the primary focus of family planning programs from the reduction of fertility and curb population growth to the empowerment of women and promotion of individual choice with regard to childbearing.
Bangladesh has nearly 51% of its married women who married before hitting their 18 years of age (UNICEFF, 2020). It is vital to assess the violation of SRHR of child brides for two reasons. First, they comprise half of the married women, and the second is child brides are more likely to be victims of the violation of several components of SRHR.
Child Marriage in Bangladesh
Child marriage is defined as a union or marriage when at least one of the two parties is under 18 years of age. It can be considered as forced marriage – one or both parties have not expressed free, informed, and full consent to the union. Child and forced marriage is a total violation of human and child rights. It is also a harmful practice towards a particular agent who doesn’t have or has less means to protect themselves. It robs them of their power to make decisions about their lives, disrupts their educational rights, makes them more vulnerable to violence, especially to gender-based violence, discrimination, and abuse, prevents their full participation in economic, social, and political spheres, and obviously, impacts on their psychological well-being. All of these consequences directly violate SRHR.
Though both boys and girls can be victims of child marriage, girls are at least five times prone to child and forced marriage. One of every five children is married or in union across the world. Every minute 28 girls are being married worldwide below 18 years old (Godha et al., 2013). Bangladesh ranks among the top 10 countries worldwide and has the highest prevalence among South Asian countries. Bangladesh has 38 million child brides, including currently married girls along with women who were first married in childhood (UNICEFF, 2020).
Child marriage has social as well as economic aspects. Many families try to avoid harassment (sexual and verbal) of their adolescent girls, consider young girls as a threat to their reputation and economic burden. These are the few dominant reasons behind child marriage. The most significant insight of child marriage is it is a violation of human rights; moreover, it brings other forms of violation such as gender-based violence, intimate partner violence, right to fertility, and many more. We will now discuss how child marriage alone can influence or at least make way for other forms of the violation directly related to sexual and reproductive health (SRH). Early or child marriage is a form of violation of SRHR, and it is more prevalent compare to other factors of violation of SRHR worldwide.
Child Marriage as a form of violation of Sexual and Reproductive Rights
Child marriage is detrimental to women’s sexual and reproductive health (SRH). Various forms of domestic violence (DV) and intimate partner violence (IBV) are typical among child brides and their partners. This may be because both bride and groom are not educated enough to understand and recognize physical (SRH and beyond) and mental health concerns related to GBV and IPV. The significant effect of education is that they are not aware of adapting family planning, modern contraceptive methods, and many more.
Domestic Violence (DV) and Intimate Partner Violence (IPV)
Girls with low bargaining power in the household are more likely to experience violence by an intimate partner. Girls who marry early are more likely to believe that a man is sometimes justified in beating his wife than women who marry later. 28 percent of women who married before 18 years old belief that it is normal to be beaten up by their husbands (UNICEFF, 2020).
Child brides are less likely to have more than secondary education, and they cannot even complete schooling (UNICEFF, 2020). Child marriage declines only among those with at least 10 years of schooling, and the graph falls 50 percent among those with at least 12 years of schooling (ibid, p. 09).
Women with low levels of education are at higher risk of violence than better-educated women. Improved education for women is related to delayed marriage, reduced infant mortality, decreased family size, increased contraceptive use, and lower general mortality (Alston et al., 2014).
Choices of marriage, childbearing, and family planning
Child marriage is not placed with the free consent of the bride. Most of the time, girls are being forced by their parents and relatives. So they have no right to choose their sexual partner and to decide whether, whom, when to marry.
Child marriage is significantly associated with poor fertility outcomes, usage of lower contraceptives early in the marriage and inadequate maternal health care. Women married as children were less likely to use fertility control before the first birth. Low fertility control may account for adverse fertility outcomes, such as pregnancy termination and unwanted pregnancy. Limited knowledge about temporary modern contraceptives, social norms for a childbearing, longer duration of the marriage, and women’s limited decision-making power and access to resources make child brides vulnerable.
In Bangladesh, nearly 5 in 10 child brides gave birth before age 18, and 8 in 10 gave birth before age 20. Early childbearing is much less common among those who married later (UNICEFF, 2020). This leads women who are married before 18 years old to risk their lives, and this practice is detrimental to their reproductive health. Furthermore, child brides have larger family members than their counterparts who married later. Larger family sizes have impacts on the physical and psychological levels because of gender norms that entitle women to rear their children.
According to UNICEFF (2020), at least 2 in 10 women have family planning needs that are unmet by modern methods; levels are similar among child brides and those who married in adulthood in Bangladesh. Women have less authority about family planning, and the number of children to bear, and gaps between childbirths. Repetitive childbirth is detrimental to their sexual and reproductive health. Moreover, some women choose sterilization after they reach their desire family size. This can be positive to family size and other dimensions of psychological and physical aspects, but sterilization can lead to STDs, and having sterilized at an early age can cause severe health problems even other than sexual and reproductive health (Godha et al., 2013).
Antenatal visits and care and skilled birth attendants are crucial during pregnancies and child delivery. Among women who have married before 18, only 32 percent received four or more antenatal visits, and 53 percent had the privilege of having birth attendants (UNICEFF, 2020). This percent is much higher for women who have married at or after 18, 42 percent and 66 percent respectively.
Climate Change and Child Marriage
Climate change in Bangladesh: Impacts
Climate change describes a change in the overall conditions in a region over a long period of time. For example, change in the average rate of temperature and rainfall. Extreme weather events, rising sea level, melting of glaciers and sea- ice, damaged coral, changes in wildlife distribution and health, an abundance of disease vectors, agricultural and public health damage are very common results of climate change (Yosef et al., 2015).
Despite Bangladesh has minimal contribution to climate change, it is the 5th most vulnerable country in the world according to Global Climate Risk Index (2020). Bangladesh experiences different types of natural disasters almost every year because of climate change; these are: flood/flash flood, salinity intrusion, cyclones and storm surge, extreme temperature, and drought. It is affecting the agricultural sector already. Floods will cause a reduction in the production of rice & wheat by 8.8%, and 32% within 2050 respectively. Due to salinity, rice production will fall by 8 percent and wheat by 32 percent by 2050. Drought and delayed rainfall and temperature rise will reduce agricultural productivity. Reduction in agricultural productivity will lead people towards vulnerabilities, especially those who are directly connected with agricultural activities. Besides the adverse impact on agriculture, rising CO2 could cut down the protein content of cereal; for instance, the protein contents of rice, wheat, barley, and potato would be decreased by 7.6%, 7.8%. 14.1% and 6.4%, respectively (Rahman & Rahman, 2018). This falling protein would increase the number of malnourished individuals throughout the world, including Bangladesh.
The agricultural sector dominates the Bangladesh economy. This includes cropping, livestock, forestry, and fisheries. Agriculture accounts for almost 25% of gross domestic product (GDP) and almost 66% of the labor force depends on agriculture for employment (GOB, 2018). Climate change and frequent natural disasters have negative relations with the agricultural sector. Bangladesh has already been suffering from issues, for example, increasing temperature, rising sea level, the magnitude of cyclones, devastating floods, riverbank erosion, saline intrusion, which have reduced crop production (Rahman et al., 2018). Sikder and Xiaoying (2014) show that the effect of climate change has a significant negative role on major crops production, poverty inducing, enhancing agricultural production, salinity acceptance, flood tolerance, drought, erratic rainfall, and shorter maturities of rice varieties. Furthermore, Climate variation performs a significant negative role in GDP growth, reducing agricultural production, enhancing food imports, decreasing food security, and national economic growth (Banerjee et al., 2015; Akram and Hamid, 2015).
To sum up, above discussion, climate change negatively impacts the national economy and public health aspects. More people are losing food security and falling into a worse malnutrition trap. These both have direct and indirect results on human sexual and reproductive health, especially those who are marginalized by gender norms.
Influence of climate change on Child Marriage
People in Bangladesh are largely dependent on agricultural sectors. Dependents are losing income and food security, and these are making them vulnerable. Many of them have no alternative livelihood, especially low-income families. So they have to come up with survival tactics. Gender discriminative norms yield them to marry off their daughters to survive; more petite mouths to feed, family reputation concern and less amount of dowry are the direct thoughts of parents when they try to justify their action of marrying off their daughters at an early age. In Bangladesh, the prevalence of child marriage is higher in poor households compare to rich households (UNICEFF, 2020). We will try to explore how and why more child marriages occur in poor households and its relationship with climate change.
Food and Income Security
Pender (2008) notes that seasons will become warmer; monsoonal rain; temperatures will rise and cyclones will be more intense and more frequent; major droughts and flooding will increase; groundwater availability; riverbank erosion will continue and food security will be affected (Alston et al., 2014).
People depending on agricultural sectors are losing their means of income due to severe natural disasters as these are reducing crop production, having negative impacts on fisheries and livestock. So families are losing their food and income security. Girls are considered an economic burden and a threat to ongoing food availability and food security. By marry off young girls, the family reduces pressure on the food supplies. Early marriage could help households save money on food and clothing for the girls, and child marriage is strongly related to the household’s economic circumstances (Tsaneva, 2020). Families who are at risk of losing their land to riverbank erosion report the desire to marry daughters as soon as possible before they lose their remaining assets and are forced to migrate to a new community (Human Rights Watch, 2015).
Poor households, especially those who are directly involved with agricultural sectors, have no or minimal alternative income source, mainly to survive in emergencies. Therefore they have to choose whom to feed or not. A daughter is seen as ‘porer shompod’, so it is an easy solution to get rid of the daughter by marrying off them and survive.
Honor is a vague concept based on patriarchal views of gender. Girls live with the reality that they are at risk and constantly under surveillance. Men and boys use the practice of eve-teasing, or sexual harassment, to influence and shame families into marrying their daughters. Eve-teasing ranges from sexual comments and extreme forms of violence used by men against women and girls. Young women being considered more physically attractive; the perception that having an unmarried daughter dishonor to the family (Chowdhury, 2010). Many of these reasons relate to the cultural perception of family ‘honor’ and ‘the perceived risks to ‘honor’ associated with girls remaining ‘unmarried, a view that ensures that young girls are constantly under surveillance and viewed with suspicion.
Child marriage rates even increase during emergencies as many families spend time in public shelters during cyclones or severe floods, where the reputations of their unmarried daughters are especially vulnerable (Ahmed et al., 2019). There is obviously a cultural expectation to marry off girls at an early age. Nonetheless, climate change and related disasters fuel child marriage. Moreover, poor households have fewer means to provide security to their adolescent daughters than wealthy households. So, it is convenient for poor household parents to marry off their daughters at an early age to secure their family reputation.
Dowry is a practice that the bride’s family giving large sums of money, jewelry, and other goods to the groom’s family supposedly to pay for their daughter’s happiness and security (Chowdhury, 2010 p. 203) and as security against divorce. Dowry payments are a traditional custom and are widely practiced despite being illegal under the Bangladesh Dowry Prohibition Act of 1980. It is a regional cultural practice rather than a religious one and appears to have spread widely since the late 1960s.
The girl’s family needs to pay a dowry to the groom’s family, and because the size of the dowry increases with the girl’s age, this could serve as an added incentive to marry off any daughters early if the prospects of being able to afford a higher dowry in the future diminish (Tsaneva, 2020). Moreover, economic conditions are being weakened by climate change variables. So marry off their child daughters would be a double-barrel profit in terms of the amount of dowry. Furthermore, grooms tend to demand high dowry because they are also affected by climate change variables and lose their food and income security. With dowry money, they can start a business or invest more in agriculture. Therefore, climate change aspects are influencing early marriage as well as demand for dowry.
Dowry is more prevalent in poor households than rich households (UNICEFF, 2020) because of its correlation with the bride’s education, sensitivity, and decision-making power. From a poor bride’s parents’ perspective, if the dowry has to be paid sooner or later (even later marriage has a risk of higher dowry) then why not accomplish the task before falling into more miseries due to lack of income security!
Child marriage is the worst form of violation of sexual and reproductive rights. Moreover, Bangladesh is one of the South Asian countries with a high rate of child brides. Child brides and women who married before adulthood experience more domestic, gender-based and intimate partner violence, and the most frustrating fact is they are more likely to justify it; and take no legal or social action. Less education makes them vulnerable in terms of economic, social and family status. They can negotiate nothing or less even about their sexual and reproductive choices.
Nevertheless, government organizations, NGOs, and international bodies are making progress toward eliminating child marriage and mitigating SRH risks associated with child marriage. However, climate change variables steal this progress, especially in poor households. Climate change is making the vulnerable in respect of economic and social survival tactics. So without considering climate change impacts, direct or indirect, on child marriage and sexual and reproductive health and rights, it will not be fruitful to any parties involved.
Child marriage is a game played by adults and victims are children. Further, most of the rich and powerful countries are the main culprits for global warming and victims are poor countries like Bangladesh. From both dimensions, adults – in terms of age, wealth and power – are playing the game, and poor, powerless children and countries are paying their best.
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Tahzir Faiaz Chowdhury, Studying Master’s in Anthropology at Jahangirnagar University
[N.B. The author himself will reserve all the responsibility of writing.]