It was the flood that ensured that Ntonya’s first year as a teenager would also be the first year of her married life.
Up to the moment it swept away her parents’ field, they had been scraping by. Afterwards they were reduced to scavenging for bits of firewood to sell.
So when the young man came to their door and asked for the 13-year old’s hand in marriage, the couple didn’t think about it for too long, lest he looked elsewhere.
Ntonya begged them to change their minds. She was too young, she pleaded. She didn’t want to leave.
But it was to no avail. Her parents sat her down and spelled it out for her: the weather had taken everything from them. There was not enough food to go around. They couldn’t afford another mouth at the table.
That night she lay down in bed for the first time with the man she had never seen before and followed the instructions of her aunt, who had coached her on the important matter of sex. Ten months later, she gave birth to their first daughter.
Everyone thinks they know what climate change looks like. It is that polar bear adrift on its ice floe. It is melting glaciers and rising sea levels. It is an apocalyptic future of cities disappearing beneath the waves.
The story of climate change tends to be one of a coming catastrophe, of signs of trouble further down the track. But what if the human disaster is already happening, hidden in full view? What if it is the young girl sitting in the doorway of her mud hut in in a small African village, nursing her first baby as she watches her friends trot off to school? What if climate change is already creating a generation of child brides?
Child marriage has been around since the dawn of human development. Figures from Unicef and the World Bank suggest that in the ten countries with the highest rates of child marriage in Africa, there are more than 41 million girls under the age of 18 and that of those nearly 23 million will be married by their 18th birthday.
But child marriage is not confined to those countries defined by the United Nations as the least developed.
The United States saw 207,468 children married below the age of 18 between 2000 and 2015, including three 10 year old girls and an 11 year old boy. The UK allows children of 16 to marry with parental consent, as does Australia. Saudi Arabia has no lower age limit for marriage. The Pew Research Center found 117 countries allowed child marriage in some form.
In 2015 the United Nations Population Fund estimated that 13.5 million children would marry below the age of 18 in that year alone – including 4.4 million married below the age of 15. That is 37,000 child marriages every day.
It is almost always defined as an issue of women’s rights, yet Unicef’s figures suggest about 18 per cent of children marrying below the age of 18 are boys. That’s just under 2.5 million child husbands a year.
Across Africa as a whole Unicef warned in 2015 that the total number of child brides could more than double to 310 million by 2050 if current trends continue.
In a report on the situation in West and Central Africa, published in October 2017, Unicef warned that unless much more progress was made then it will take more than 100 years to bring an end to child marriage in the region.
“We need to shake ourselves up,” said Fatoumata Ndiaye, Unicef’s deputy executive director. “We cannot continue to let so many of our girls miss out on their health, education, and childhood. At current rates, our report shows, it will take over 100 years to eliminate child marriage in the region – how is this acceptable?”
There are many reasons for children marrying young. In some societies, it is regarded as simply practical. When children reach puberty, sexual behaviour starts to carry with it the risk of pregnancy.
It is also true that marrying off children early has always been an answer to poverty. When parents cannot afford to feed several children, it tends to be the girls who have to go.
In societies where the family of the husband pay dowry – including Malawi and Mozambique, the subjects of this investigation – it also brings in some extra cash or resources. So it is no great surprise to find high levels of child marriage in rural communities in sub Saharan Africa. It has always been that way.
But set against that is a growing awareness of the issue and a stated desire by governments to tackle it. Malawi made it illegal to marry below the age of 18 in 2015 and wrote it into its constitution this year. The rate of child marriage should be falling. Yet it persists. In Mozambique the number of child brides is actually rising as a result of the growing population. Something else has entered the equation.
Agnes Mposwa thinks she knows what it is. She thinks it is climate change.
Agnes is 15. She was married a year ago at the age of 14 and is carrying her four month old daughter tied to her back. She lives with her 18 year old husband Simon in Muwawa village in Malawi.
Her parents are tobacco farmers. They used to be able to support the family, she says, but not any more, so they had taken her out of school. It was her own decision to get married; better that than sit idly at home.
“If the climate did not change, then I would be in school now. I have to accept that my parents tried their best but it failed because of climate change.
“It is because of careless cutting down of trees that has led to climate change. Also in riverbanks, where the tree are cut off, and this has led to soil erosion. And because of that, the fertility of the land was reduced. Because part of the ground that was fertile soil has been washed away to the rivers.”
Her parents were against her decision, but she insisted it was the best thing to do.
“There was no formal proposal. We just fell in love and the relationship started. There was no marriage ceremony. He lived with his parents. So I just went and lived with them in the same house.
“The happy part was that I was living with a man. When people looked at me, they saw my status as a married woman.”
Now she is regretting her impetuosity.
“I decided to find a man who could support my education. But I now regret my decision because he was not able to support me to go to school as I would have expected.
“It may be a rush decision to get married. It was not a wise decision. Because now I cannot continue my studies. If somebody could support me, I would go back to school.”