How the climate crisis adds to child marriage in Nepal

As harvests fail due to drought and floods, girls from marginalised families are forced to marry earlier to escape poverty

Young mothers with their children in Muktikot where child marriage has become more prevalent as subsistence farmers cope with a succession of droughts and floods that have destroyed harvests. All photos: SONAM LAMA

Mulai kyai thaa bhayaanai,” murmurs Birjaman, pain and fatigue etched on his wizened face. He has just made a steep 3-hour climb from his village of Muktikot to a pharmacy carrying his semi-conscious daughter-in-law, Reti.

She has post-partum haemorrhage, and has not stopped bleeding. The clinic managed to save her life, but the young mother lost her three-month foetus. Reti was married off at 16, and at 22 already has two children.

The midwife says the miscarriage was due to weakness and heavy workload during pregnancy. Reti’s husband is working in India, and she has to do all the household work, raise the children, take care of the livestock, and fetch water herself.

At the pharmacy, Gopal Singh says he sees cases like this often. This is the nearest medical stop for the predominantly Dalit village of Muktikot. He says, "This is nothing new around here, we get miscarriages like this daily. Many do not make it. Young mothers are not physically mature for childbearing and couples do not use contraceptives."

Marriage before age 20 is punishable by law in Nepal but it is still common. Low female literacy, poverty, discrimination and cultural norms play a role, but child marriage has become more prevalent as of late, as subsistence farmers cope with a succession of droughts and floods that have destroyed harvests.

Last winter, western Nepal suffered a 6-month drought that was followed by wildfires that raged for months. Then, two weeks ago the region was hit by a freak post-monsoon storm that destroyed standing crops. Farmers had been hopeful for a good harvest because of plentiful rain this monsoon, but the unseasonal downpour on 18-19 October unleashed landslides and floods and dashed their hopes.

Scientists say global warming has added to the moisture content in the atmosphere, triggering extreme weather with erratic monsoons, frequent droughts and cloudbursts. Families in food-deficit western Nepal, already in a precarious situation, have been pushed over the edge.

Already stricken by poverty and caste discrimination, the impact of climate crisis means that more parents now marry off their young daughters, who in turn end up risking their lives due to early pregnancy and poor diet.

"My father remarried after my mother died, and he married me off at 16 saying I would have a good life after marriage," recalls Reti.

Read also: Climate crisis is a disaster in the Nepal Himalaya, Sonam Choekyi Lama

Subi, 16, is also from the same village. She lost her new born baby two days after home delivery three months ago. She had not had a single pre-natal check-up, was too undernourished to breast feed properly, and her baby eventually died of hunger.

Subi herself bled for more than two weeks after the birth, and even though there were no men to carry her to the health post, she survived. She is still weak and anemic. Subi’s friend Suna is also 16 and expecting her first baby. Afraid that she may have the same complication, she walked five hours to a pharmacy to get iron tablets.

Locals gathered in Muktikot. At least one member from each family is currently working in India.

Suna’s mother Rauthi married her to a neighbour’s son because the family’s harvest failed after a long drought. She has seven children, all of whom have dropped out of school either to work in India, or to get married and raise their own children. The husbands of both Suna and Subi are also away in India, working to augment family income.

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Most families here have at least one member working in India, and the income they send home was what helped them survive when crops failed. But many Nepalis lost their jobs during the pandemic, so even this fallback option was not there for the past two years.

“Life here is tough, and getting tougher. Early marriage is the norm, since it is easier to get our daughters married, so we do not have to feed them,” says Rauthi, two of whose seven children are handicapped and cannot go to school, or work.

Children in Muktikot have to walk across steep terrain for three hours roundtrip everyday to go to school.

Nearly 40% of girls in Nepal marry before they are 18, while some 14% give birth to their first child before their 19th birthday. Moreover, children of Dalit communities are at higher risk of being married young because of poverty, discrimination and limited access to resources.

Although child marriage is less common than it used to be, it is still prevalent despite laws banning it. Now, the economic crisis due to the pandemic and the climate emergency has exacerbated the situation.

This is evident in Bajura, a district in Nepal with one of the worst development indicators with more than 70% of people living below the poverty line, while Nepal’s national average is 26%.

Frequent droughts and crop failures in recent years have further impoverished Bajura’s subsistence farmers. As it is, only 9% of the land in the mountainous district is arable, with a mere 1.42% with irrigation facility. Crop yields of barley, wheat, maize and millet harvests have dropped sharply in the past 10 years.

Every year the district faces a shortage of 11,000 tonnes food grain, and a World Food Programme (WFP) bulletin classified 85% of the population being food insecure. Muktikot is one of the villages classified as very vulnerable to deficient nutrition.

Even in years with normal harvest, food grown here is enough only to feed families for three months in year. The result is out-migration for work, malnutrition, forced child marriage, high maternal and infant mortality.

With farmers so dependent on rain-fed agriculture, their fragile existence is even more precarious because of climate-related extreme weather. A 30-year precipitation data at the nearby Martadimet station shows that total annual rainfall has fallen, there is little winter snow, and even that tends to come with destructive storms.

“Rainfall has always been unpredictable in these parts, but these days there is very little winter snow that we need for the spring marsi paddy and buckwheat,” says 65-year-old farmer Brija Bahadur Bam. “And when it does rain, it is so heavy that it washes away the crops.”

This all adds up to lower groundwater tables, which means even perennial springs have gone dry. Indira Kandel of the Department of Hydrology and Meteorology says that the rain and snow is then not enough to replenish the aquifers.

The link between drought and child marriage has been proven by research in India. Reetika Revathy Subramanian, a PhD student at the University of Cambridge, has studied how drought-induced migration in the caste-ridden Marathwada region of India has increased underage marriage.

“The decision for a girl to marry gets shaped by a web of intersecting factors, including poverty, access to education, social pressure and norms, harassment and intimidation, which is further exacerbated by disaster,” she explains.

In Nepal’s Bajura district, too, the Dalit community is more vulnerable to the impact of the climate crisis on agriculture than more privileged groups. “Child marriage is rampant here but it is more likely in families hit hard by food crises and with many children,” says Birban BK of the Nepal Climate Change Support Program (NCCSP).

The answer lies in making irrigation available to farmers so they are not affected by erratic rainfall, which is why the NCCSP prioritised building irrigation canals and flood-prevention gabion walls in Bajura.

Muktikot got its name from Maoists guerrillas during the insurgency who wanted to show that the Dalit village had been liberated from caste discrimination. The war has been over for 16 years, but life is, if anything, worse for the Dalits here.

Village officials and locals believe that the relocation of the entire community is the only way out. Plans are afoot for the rehabilitation of villagers to settlements up the mountains to an altitude of 2,500-3,000m where rainfall is more regular. They can grow cash crops like walnut and apple, but will be needing help accessing the market.

“These practices could be diversification of livelihoods and income sources through adopting climate-resilient cash crops, connecting farmers to the markets, promoting agro-forestry and use of bioengineering for infrastructure development,” says Monika Upadhyay of WFP Nepal.

Even among Dalits, it is the women from the community who are even more affected by the climate crisis. The shortage of water adds to their daily drudgery, because they have to walk longer to reach springs that are still functioning.

Says Radha Wagle of the Climate Change Management Division at the Ministry of Environment: “In Bajura and other districts, we need climate-resilient and gender-responsive plans because women are more adversely affected by socio-economic, geographical and climatic vulnerability.”

Nepal aims to implement these measures at local levels by 2030, the same year the government has set to end child marriage. But given that the practice is still rampant, it is an ambitious target.

Says Subramanian: “It is important to strengthen child marriage prevention groups, village-level committees to work closely with vulnerable families including women and girls in particular.”

At nearby Radhamata Secondary School, only 13 of the 113 students in Grade 10 are unmarried. Manshova Buddha, 17, is one of them. She says: “With so many of my friends already married off by their parents, I also feel the pressure. But I am not going to give up on my dreams.”

Read also: Educating girls for climate action, Helen Grant

Some names have been changed.

This report was supported by the Road to COP26 campaign implemented by the British Council and funded by UKAID.