As many as 1.5 million girls in Malawi alone may at risk of child marriage as a result of climate change, according to the Malawian child marriage expert Mac Bain Mkandawire,
Even some of the published figures may be an underestimate of the scale of the problem because many marriages, like that of Agnes and Simon, are informal affairs, not officially recorded. Often they are simply an agreement between two families, or if there are no parents then between the boy and the girl themselves. Sometimes a small dowry of about £25 is paid by the husband or his family.
Part of the increase in the official figures can be attributed to population growth. And in the cities, there are signs that the rate of child marriage may be falling. But out in the countryside, where most people still live, it is a different picture.
Time and again, in villages from the south of Malawi to the east coast of Mozambique, the child brides and their parents told an increasingly familiar story.
Over the years, they had noticed that the temperatures were rising, the rains were less predictable and came later, and sometimes there was flooding where there had not been flooding before.
Families that would once have been able to afford to feed and educate several children reported that they now faced an impossible situation. The stories echoed from village to village.
We used to get 50kg of maize from the field and now it’s 1kg.
There was a river here. And now it’s gone.
We used to have fields and then the floods became a regular event and now we have no fields.
The sea is warmer.
The nights are hotter.
The days are hotter.
Our crops are falling every year.
The fish have gone away.
We don’t have enough money to survive.
None of the villages had any way of recording the changes scientifically, or indeed felt any urge to do so. All they knew was that the weather had changed and that they were once able to pay for their girls to go through school and now they couldn’t.
The families were angry and they were frustrated but the only solution they could see was to marry off one of more daughters to try to square the circle.
Sometimes it was the parents who made the decision. For the good of the rest of the family, a daughter had to be sacrificed. She would be taken out of school and found a husband, one less mouth to feed.
Sometimes it was the girl herself who made the decision and forced it upon her parents. Unhappy, hungry, she hoped that a husband might be the answer. Some parents were reluctant, anguished about removing a daughter from school to marry a man she didn’t know. But they felt that the change in their circumstances left them with no other choice.
Carlina Nortino sits with her husband Horacio in the dry sand that is all that is left of the river that once flowed past the village of Nataka in Mozambique’s Larde district. From the ground, there is nothing to see of the river. From the air, a darker line of green growth winds its way across the plain, the ghost of the river.
Carlina is 15, Horacio 16. They married when she was 13, two years after the river disappeared, she says.
“I remember when I saw people here fishing. I used to sell the fish, I took it from the fishermen and went to sell it to the village. There was water everywhere. I remember seeing Horacio with the other fishermen. But without rain, the fish died.”
They used to harvest as many as 20 bags of cassava, each weighing 50kg. As the rain stopped coming, production decreased, until today they get only one or two bags.
“The rain doesn’t come anymore. The water we used to have at the bottom of the plant isn’t there any more. So it’s impossible to produce more than three bags.”
Horacio looks across to the river once ran. “I can’t fish anymore because the fish don’t have water any more. The water disappeared.
“Now, I started to do agriculture. I am a farmer now. It is true that I don’t produce a lot, not as much as we used to before because there is no more rain. Before, the rain stated in September and came regularly until March. Now the rain only comes in January and February and that’s it.”
Carlina had hoped to stay on in school.
“The most important thing for me was school. I was dreaming of studying to become a midwife. But I couldn’t because I was poor.
“It was never my desire to get married at that young age. I wanted to go to school. But I was forced to by my father, who realised that he couldn’t support me anymore. I am not happy.”
When Horacio appeared on the scene, it seemed like the answer to their problems.
“Horacio liked me and he went to see my parents and asked for my hand. The family didn’t have enough food to survive. So my father accepted the proposal because he couldn’t support me to go to school.”
She give birth to their first child, a boy, earlier this year. The child did not survive.
“The pregnancy was a problem from the beginning. I was ill during the whole pregnancy. When I entered in labour, they took me to the hospital. There I started having problems, the doctors saw that they couldn’t do anything else for me, so they suggested we should go to a bigger hospital. But my parents didn’t have the means to take me there. So I stayed there and I gave birth to a very fragile baby. So he didn’t survive.
“The baby should have stayed in an incubator. But they didn’t have that in the hospital were I went. So they didn’t have the means to protect him.
“I am sure that if my father and my husband weren’t that poor, my son would be alive.”
It wasn’t his choice, says her father, Carlitos Camilo. He didn’t want to have to marry her off.
The 49-year-old used to support his family through fishing and farming. Then the weather changed.
”The problem is the lack of rain. I has decreased a lot, it has almost disappeared. In terms of fishing, I used to get a lot of fish. But today, there is no more fish, again because it doesn’t rain enough. Without rain, the fish are not able to reproduce anymore.
“In the past, there was an estuary, where the lake and the sea meet, where the fished reproduced. There were many kinds of fish. But today, they don’t exist anymore, because that area turned dry.
“It wasn’t my will to marry my daughter. If I was able to feed my children, I wouldn’t have pushed her to get married so young. Look at my other daughters, they grew up, they went to school, they got married at a normal age.”