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Extreme weather increases the likelihood of forced child marriages

The shocking weather extremes witnessed around the world in 2023 – including heatwaves, wildfires, and floods – are expected to become the norm if dramatic action is not taken to mitigate the climate crisis.

A new study from The Ohio State University has exposed a negative aspect of climate change that has been largely overlooked: an increase in child marriages.

The experts reviewed 20 studies that investigated a potential link between extreme weather and forced child marriages in low- and middle-income countries, primarily in Asia and Africa.

Compelling evidence 

Overall, the studies provide compelling evidence of the problem, said Fiona Doherty, lead author of the study and a doctoral candidate in social work at Ohio State.

Doherty explained that the effect of extreme weather on child marriages is indirect. “What these disasters do is exacerbate existing problems of gender inequality and poverty that lead families to child marriage as a coping mechanism.”

Child marriages will increase with climate extremes

The experts report that globally, one in five girls is married before the age of 18, and in lower- and middle-income countries that number jumps to 40 percent. 

These numbers will likely grow as climate change increases the frequency of extreme weather events around the world, said study co-author Professor Smitha Rao.

“The complexities surrounding child marriage and extreme weather will worsen amid climate change,” said Rao.

Focus of the study

The research was focused on 20 studies published between 1990 and 2022. The studies investigated how extreme weather was related to marriages involving children, mostly girls, in low- and middle-income countries.

Some of the natural disasters examined were droughts, floods, cyclones and extreme heat shocks. According to Doherty, the analysis revealed the impacts of disasters on child marriage in a variety of contexts.

For example, the results of a study focused on Bangladesh showed that in years with prolonged heat waves lasting more than 30 days, the likelihood of 11- to 14-year-old girls getting married increased by 50 percent.

Economic vulnerability 

“Child marriage is often seen as a coping strategy to reduce economic vulnerability and food insecurity that a family is facing because of a disaster,” Doherty said.

For example, tne study found that girls in Bangladesh were forced to marry after Cyclone Aila to reduce the economic strain on households.

The researchers noted that early marriage is also used as a means to provide additional workers for families. 

In Kenya, young brides were sought to help with increased labor demands when a drought threatened water sources and livestock. The girls were needed to walk long distances to find food and water.

Regional customs

The study revealed that customs of bride price and dowry payment were some of the key contributors to the link between child marriage and extreme weather.

In some regions, such as sub-Saharan Africa, the groom’s family pays the bride’s family a “bride price.” In these areas, girls were more likely to be forced to marry during droughts and periods of heavy rainfall, according to the analysis. 

By contrast, in regions like India where the bride’s family pays a “dowry” to the groom’s family, girls were less likely to get married during a drought year.

Ripple effects

Beyond economics, studies showed a variety of ripple effects from weather disasters that led to more child marriages, explained Rao.

When communities were displaced by floods and other weather disasters, families often ended up in dangerous camps where young girls were targeted for sexual violence.

“Families sometimes made the choice to get their young daughters married off in these situations to protect them from harassment and sexual violence,” said Rao.


The researchers found that education was a key factor that helped protect girls from being forced into marriage. 

The analysis showed that girls who were educated were less likely to be married off early. In addition, parents who were more educated were less likely to marry off their daughters.

While education is one way to help protect against child marriage, Doherty and Rao said more needs to be done, including laws against child marriage.  

Furthermore, the experts noted that financial support for families facing economic difficulties could help prevent them from marrying off daughters.

“But we found the main driver of child marriage is gender inequality,” said Doherty. “We need to find ways to empower women and girls with education and financial control that will allow them to make their own decisions.”

Further research is needed 

The researchers noted that all of the studies they analyzed were focused on low- and middle-income countries – only because they could not find any studies focused on high-income countries.

However, the experts said that weather disasters could also be increasing child marriage in high-income countries, including the United States.

“We need more research to understand the differences and additional factors that may be affecting the link between extreme weather events and child marriage in other parts of the world, including high-income countries,” said Rao.

Angelise Radney, a doctoral student in social work at Ohio State, was also a co-author on the study. The research is published in the journal International Social Work.

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