As far back as 2006, the international charity ActionAid was warning that “the situation in Malawi illustrates the drastic increases in hunger and food insecurity being caused by global warming worldwide”.
Gibson Mphepo, head of programmes with environmental think tank Lead Southern & Eastern Africa, says there is a clear link between child marriage and climate change.
“There is a link between climate change and early marriage, which is a coping strategy,” he says.
“More than 90% of income is coming from agriculture. If this sector is affected, income is affected. For a girl to go to school, you need money, and if the crop is affected, the household doesn’t have adequate money to send the child to school.
“There are cases where girls get married earlier as a way of taking off excess members of the family. If there are three girls in the family, they believe that if these girls get married earlier, that means the mouths, the number of people to be fed in that house will decrease.”
The government’s own report on the 2015 floods listed child marriage as one of the side effects, a view shared by the anti-child marriage campaign group Girls Not Brides.
“Where floods, droughts, and resulting crop destruction devastate food security and economic production, families may see marrying their daughters as a method to secure a safer or more food secure household for them”, it reported in June 2017.
“It’s all about how climate change is linked to poverty, about all the pressure it puts on the society, on the people,” said Amos Mtonya. “So to some, giving away their girl child can be a relief. It can also help the husband’s family, since it gets someone who can assist with the household chores.
“Soon, the girl loses interest in school. It’s easy for one to leave everything and think about marriage. Of course tradition plays its role, but climate change will encourage people to get married early.”
A 2014 Human Rights Watch report “Child Marriage in Malawi” found that “between 2010 and 2013, 27,612 girls in primary and 4,053 girls in secondary schools dropped out due to marriage. During the same period, another 14,051 primary school girls and 5,597 secondary school girls dropped out because they were pregnant”.
Maliya Mapira dropped out of school because a teacher got her pregnant. She was 15 at the time.
Her parents are tobacco farmers and the poor weather meant they were living hand to mouth. When they discovered who the father was, they wanted Maliya to marry him.
“The man who got me pregnant was a teacher,” she says. “We agreed I should take care of my baby and when he is old enough I should go back to school. And the teacher would support me and the baby so that I could finish school.
“But along the way the teacher was unable to support me, not even the baby. So it became difficult for me to go school so I just stopped and searched for a husband.
“If my parents could have supported me, I would have preferred to continue with education rather than getting married.
“They were trying to support me, but they are very old. I didn’t want to put pressure on them. So I just decided to get married to this man to survive.
“I didn’t want to marry the teacher because he had other girlfriends apart from me. And give the little support he could bring me, I understood he wouldn’t be able to take care of me. The one I am married to is better off compared to the teacher.”
Now she lives with the man she chose instead, Maliki Hestone, and their six month old son Bashiru Akim.
“My husband can provide some things, others he can’t. He is also a farmer. He is able to provide food, a few groceries, but it’s not enough. It is very little and when times get hard, we can’t even buy soap.
“He is growing tobacco also. Sometimes, because of the floods, the crops get washed away. Even finding fertiliser is difficult. And the floods can carry away even the fertiliser. At the end of the day, we get very little harvest from it.
“I don’t want to have more children because we are struggling taking care of the one I have. It would just make things more difficult.”
As the natural disasters mount up, so too do the number of child marriages, according to Mac Bain Mkandawire, executive director of Youth Net and Counselling, which campaigns for the rights of women and children from its base in Zomba, Malawi.
“I want to highlight that over the years, in the areas that are devastated by floods and drought, a lot of children are being married off because their families are very numerous,” he said. “Sometimes, the children are the ones who are choosing to get married so that they can get a better living, even though that is not always the outcome.
“But the thinking behind it is: ‘we are hungry here. If you get married the man may help you get some food’. For instance, the district of Mangoche has been particularly affected by floods and there has been an insurgence of girls getting married in that area. But those marriages don’t usually last, since they were not very stable to begin with.”
Child marriage has been a problem for a long time, he says. But the changing weather patterns are a new and significant factor.
“We do not have detailed figures, but I would say 30% to 40% of child marriages in Malawi are due to the floods and droughts caused by climate change.
“Given that there are about four or five million girls at risk of getting married in Malawi, around 1.5 million girls are at risk of getting married because of climate change related events. That is a very huge number.”
It also risks being self-perpetuating. A 2015 African Union report referenced in Malawi’s The Nation newspaper suggested that those girls who married early were likely to bring up daughters who did the same. It reported that 65 per cent of women with no formal education were child brides, compared with five per cent of women who went to secondary school or into higher education.
“Dropping out of school means girls often lack even basic literary and numeracy skills. One study found that each year of marriage before adulthood reduces a girl’s literacy by 5.6 percentage points,” it said.
The detrimental impacts on health are well documented: cervical cancer, death during childbirth, obstetric fistulas, sexually transmitted disease. The list goes on and on. A 2014 Human Rights Watch report found that “maternal mortality represents about 16 percent of all deaths of women aged 15-49”.
“When girls get married, they are expected to have sex and to have babies. Chances are very high that they will have children who will continue living in this situation of poverty and be married off again because of the same challenges. Also, those girls are prone to face various health issues,” says Mkandawire.
“The vulnerability that climate change causes will lead to more child brides and we need to focus on them and provide support and information so that people are more aware of how to deal and respond to the issue of child marriages that result from the impact of climate change.”