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‘Climate Brides’ founder claims early marriage has become climate adaptation in South Asia

By Anna Abraham

Conversation with Reetika Subramanian, who is exploring the links between early marriage and climate change

Child marriage is a crisis in South Asia — almost one in three girls are married by the time they turn 18. Things only get worse when you add climate change to the mix. Severe weather events impact women disproportionately, and early marriage and human trafficking are a few of the ways this manifests. South Asia is no stranger to climate disasters, with deadly floods in Pakistan and the scorching heat wave in the Indian peninsula still lingering in memory. Climate change is expected to displace 62 million South Asian people by 2050.

Currently reporter, Anna Abraham, spoke with Reetika Revathy Subramanian, the founder of the Climate Brides project, who is “untying the knots between climate change and early marriages” in South Asia through her work. Subramanian’s Ph.D. at the University of Cambridge looks into the links between early marriage and drought. A literature review eventually turned into social media posts, and thanks to a grant, the Climate Brides podcast became a reality. Before this, she worked as a journalist, covering labor migration and gender in Western India.

(All discussion paraphrased unless in direct quotes)

Abraham: How is climate change tied to people’s labor and livelihoods? And how does this manifest into early marriage and forced marriage?

Subramanian: Livelihoods have changed quite drastically from agriculture to more labor migration-oriented work. In [drought-stricken] Marathwada, for instance, many are forced to turn from small farmers into sugarcane harvesters. It’s ironic because [water-thirsty] sugarcane is leading to food insecurity, but it is also the only way in which farmers can survive.

Women or girls’ experiences of climate change are linked to daily unpaid labor. They have to walk farther to get water and firewood. Basic everyday work has increased in intensity and [time commitment]. That’s exactly what we’ve been trying to document in the podcast — marriage is an institution of labor.

In the recent episode we did on the climate-vulnerable Sundarbans, professor Upasana Ghosh tells us about women facing trouble gaining [regular] employment in crab-catching. Even if they get work, they are underpaid and work under very extreme circumstances. In turn [they are forced to migrate] making them vulnerable to child trafficking and child marriages.

Marriage becomes a form of climate adaptation.

We’ve been saying these are “marriages of survival”. It’s not like mothers don’t love their children or that they want them to go through this. It is coming from a place of [economic] insecurity. During the pandemic when schools shut down, there were no midday meal schemes [serving free lunch to 120 million Indian school children] available. And in the Sunderbans, there was also a cyclone to deal with. Obviously, you’ll say, “Okay, there’ll be one less mouth to feed — one less burden to attend to if the girl is married off.”

What role do dowries play in these “marriages of survival”?

In some cases it’s dowry and in others, it’s bride price. It’s basically marital payments taking different forms based on their culture. It’s like paying for somebody’s labor. In the episode we did with journalist Ruchi Kumar who was reporting from [drought and violence-stricken] Afghanistan, she talked about the toyna payment system, which is a form of bride price. The potential groom’s family will pay the young bride’s family, not only in cash but also in terms of other resources, like grains. We are talking about brides as young as 12 or 13.

When you have extreme weather calamities, someone more vulnerable would make do with whatever [marital payment] they’re getting. We’ve been observing how people in Maharashtra, India, also give bedding mattresses, air coolers, and even motorbikes, which are useful for [farmers’] climate-induced migration journey.