Climate change-driven extreme weather – from flooding and mudslides to blistering heat – is accelerating migration to Bangladesh’s cities, raising the risks of problems such as child marriage, according to Unicef’s head of Bangladesh programs.
“In Bangladesh, climate change is in your face. You can’t avoid it. You can see it happening,” said Sheema Sen Gupta in an interview in London with the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“Every year you have cyclones, floods, landslides. It’s a given. It’s now part of everyday living, and the clearest thing you see [from it] is rural to urban migration.”
But surging migration to cities by rural families no longer able to make a living from farming or fishing brings other threats, from worsening urban overcrowding to child marriage, as families seek to keep girls “safe” in a new environments.
“I hesitate to say climate change and urbanization are the major causes of child marriage. But they do compound it and make it a bit more difficult to intervene,” said Sen Gupta, who has been in Bangladesh for seven months and previously worked for Unicef in India, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Ghana and Somalia.
However, innovative efforts to curb the threat – particularly training young people to help each other – are paying off, with Bangladesh’s government now incorporating programs started by organisations such as Unicef and Save the Children, she said.
Across Bangladesh, more than 4,000 youth clubs have been set up which gather young people regularly to listen to radio broadcasts on human rights issues, health, nutrition and other topics, and then discuss the issues.
Preventing child marriage is one of the main focuses of the groups, Sen Gupta said, with members keeping an eye out in the community for girls at risk, and then, if they see a threat, alerting community leaders, who are able to step in.
“The best tool is the adolescents themselves,” she said “They intervene – they know who to contact, they have a helpline. They call and say a marriage is planned.”
Better yet, said Sen Gupta, a psychologist by training, the groups have created a growing conviction among many girls that early marriage is not only bad for their health and prospects, but something they can avoid with community support.
“Adolescents themselves are more able to say ‘I’m not getting married'” she said. “Girls are able to stand up to their parents.”
Monitoring of child marriage rates over the last two years suggests that numbers are falling, but Sen Gupta said Unicef is not yet fully confident of the data.
Bangladesh in February passed a Child Marriage Restraint Act, which bans marriage of girls under 18 – a significant change in a country where 18 percent of girls are married before 15 and more than half by 18, according to a 2016 Unicef study.
However, the new ban has a gaping loophole that allows parents to agree to such marriages in “exceptional circumstances” with a magistrate’s approval, Sen Gupta said.
Unicef and other partners are now “trying to frame the rules about what the exception is so everything doesn’t become an exception,” she said.
Sen Gupta said that low-lying and densely populated Bangladesh, widely seen as one of the countries most vulnerable to climate change, sees the risks and has proved adept at scaling up successful pilot efforts run by non-governmental organisations into broader government-run programs.
“Bangladesh has a good framework of climate adaptation, based on the fact that they need to survive,” she said. “Clearly there is an awareness [climate impacts] are increasing and we need to do something.”
That is an attitude needed more globally, she said.
“People need to understand how important this is for kids, for their rights, for their development,” she said. “If we don’t look at climate change, at addressing these issues, we won’t make the progress we’re committed to making.”