As global warming exacerbates drought and floods, farmers’ incomes plunge – and girls as young as 13 are given away to stave off poverty
November 26, 2017 — It was the flood that ensured that Ntonya Sande’s first year as a teenager would also be the first year of her married life. Up to the moment the water swept away her parents’ field in Kachaso in the Nsanje district of Malawi, they had been scraping a living. Afterwards they were reduced to scavenging for bits of firewood to sell.
So when a 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 look 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 changed and 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 has their own idea of what climate change looks like. For some, it’s the walrus struggling to find space on melting ice floes on Blue Planet II. For others, it’s an apocalyptic vision of cities disappearing beneath the waves. But for more and more girls across Africa, the most palpable manifestation of climate change is the baby in their arms as they sit watching their friends walk to school. The Brides of the Sun reporting project, funded by the European Journalism Centre, set out to try to assess the scale of what many experts are warning is a real and growing crisis: the emergence of a generation of child brides as a direct result of a changing climate.
And 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. In recent years they had noticed the temperatures rising, the rains becoming less predictable and coming later and sometimes 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.
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 where they used to be able to pay for their girls to go through school now they couldn’t. And the only solution was for one or more daughters to get married.
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.
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 the Larde district of Nampula province, on the east coast of Mozambique. From the ground, there is nothing to see of the river. But a drone camera sent up to hover above reveals the ghost of the river, a darker line of green growth winding its way across the plain.
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.”
Her family used to harvest as many as 20 50kg bags of cassava. Today it is down to one or two bags. She blames the lack of rain.
Horacio looks across to where the river once ran. “I can’t fish any more because the fish don’t have water any more. The water disappeared. Now I do agriculture. Before, the rain started in September and came regularly until March. Now the rain only comes in January and February and that’s it.”
Carlina had dreamed of becoming a midwife: school was the most important part of her life. “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. 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. There were problems from the start. The family could not afford to go to a hospital with an incubator and the child died. “I am sure that if my father and my husband weren’t that poor, my son would be alive,” she says.
It wasn’t his choice to marry her off, says her father, Carlitos Camilo. The 49-year-old used to support his family through fishing and farming. Then the weather changed and there was no more fish. “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.”
In 2015 the United Nations Population Fund estimated that 13.5 million children would marry under the age of 18 in that year alone – 37,000 child marriages every day – including 4.4 million married before they were 15. Across the whole of Africa, Unicef warned in 2015 that the total number of child brides could more than double to 310 million by 2050 if current trends continue.
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. Elsewhere, poverty is the driver: when parents cannot afford to feed several children, it tends to be the girls who have to go.
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.
The new factor is climate change, says 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.
“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,” he says. There are no detailed figures, he explains, because no one has previously thought to connect the two issues and to ask the right questions.
“Given that there are about 4 or 5 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 huge number.”
The published figures may underestimate the scale of the problem because many marriages 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 is paid by the husband or his family.
That’s how it was for Filomena Antonio. She was 15 when 21-year-old Momande Churute approached her father, Antonio, and offered him 2,000 Mozambican meticals (£25) to marry his daughter.
Antonio Momade Jamal is 50. He has lived in Moma in Nampula province, all his life. He started fishing in 1985 when it was still a profitable business. Back then, buyers used to come from the city of Nampula to compete for the catch. Then the weather started to change.
“We see that it’s too hot. We talk about that and we all agree that it’s difficult to catch enough fish because of these high temperatures,” he says. “In the areas where we used to go, the sea level is rising and the waves are much stronger.”
He thought Filomena too young to marry but he felt he had little choice and when Momande offered to support her to stay in school, he agreed. He says he is not the only one.
“I’ve seen other neighbours who, because they are struggling, let their daughters get married. I have five other kids who go to secondary school. I have two other daughters, one of 13, another of 11. If a man came to ask for their hand, I would think about it, I would consider it. This man could help me support not only my daughter, but also help my other kids continue their education.”
Filomena sits next to him, listening. She appears to have accepted her fate as long as it means she can go off to study in the city. She wants to be a nurse.
“We met here in the neighbourhood and he asked me to be with him,” she says, indicating Momande. “I liked him. I thought he was a beautiful man.”
She told him he had to ask her father’s permission. “My father accepted because he had poor conditions, so he believed that my husband could support me to go to school. I accepted because my father allowed me to. Since my father is poor, I thought I would get married so that my husband would help me. I believe that if my father had kept doing well with the fishing, he wouldn’t have accepted the proposal because then he could afford my education, the school fees, my books.”
Mozambique is one of the world’s poorest countries, with almost 70% of its 28 million people living below the poverty line. It is particularly vulnerable to climate change: the Netherlands Commission for Environmental Assessment warns that “climate-related hazards such as droughts, floods and cyclones are occurring with increasing frequency”.
The legal age of marriage is 18 (16 with parental consent) but still Mozambique has one of the highest rates of child marriage in the world, with nearly one in two girls married by the age of 18 and one in seven by 15. The highest rates of child marriage are found in the northern provinces, including Nampula, which also has the highest number of adolescent pregnancies.
Fatima Mussa is 16, and nine months pregnant. She hadn’t really wanted to get married. On the other hand, her father could no longer afford to keep her. She married 18-year-old Priorino Antonio last year when she was 15 after he approached her father in the village of Nataka, in Nampula province, and offered him 2,000 meticals. There was no ceremony.
“My father said ‘I would have never considered allowing my daughter to marry now, because she is young. But she will marry because I don’t have enough money to send her to secondary school.’ I didn’t want to get married at such a young age, but I didn’t know what to do, since I couldn’t go to school. So I saw an opportunity to marry someone who could maybe improve my life a little bit.”
Across the border in Malawi, nearly half the country’s girls are married by the age of 18 and nearly one in 10 by age 15, leaving Malawi ranked by Unicef as the 11th worst country in the world for child marriage. The legal age of marriage was raised to 18 in 2015 but there have been no reports of any prosecutions.
Poverty is the key factor, increasingly driven by climate change. The International Monetary Fund says that 70% of the 19 million population live below the poverty line, and 25% live in extreme poverty: “Considering that a significant number of the non-poor in rural areas are highly vulnerable to weather shocks, the poverty rate is – if anything – expected to increase due to the impact of recent floods and drought.”
For Lucy Anusa, it was the drought of 2016 that tipped her over the edge. She was 14, the youngest of three sisters living with their farmer parents in Namalaka, near the southern end of Lake Malawi, when the drought laid waste to their crops.
“I met this man who proposed to get married. I had to accept despite the fact that my parents kept telling me good things about education. But I opted for marriage given the way things were at home.”
Her parents were unhappy, but she was too stubborn. Only when she became pregnant and the husband turned her out of their home did she start to regret her decision.
Now 15, she gave birth to their daughter earlier this year. “My mother had to welcome me back. But she kept reminding me: ‘My daughter, I told you about this. You are too young for marriage. You have a lot of challenges when you go into marriage so young.’”
The changes in the weather are wrong-footing farmers, says Amos Mtonya from Malawi’s department of climate change and meteorological services. “When it starts to rain, they immediately start planting. But then, three weeks later, they realise that everything they planted is dry,” he says. “So to some, giving away their girl child can be a relief. It can also help the husband’s family, since it gets someone to assist with the household chores. Of course tradition plays its role, but climate change will encourage people to get married early.”
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. “If we don’t act now we risk another generation of childhoods being lost,” says its executive director Lakshmi Sundaram.
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 worsening harvests meant they were living hand to mouth. When they discovered who the father was, they wanted Maliya to marry him. “But along the way the teacher was unable to support me, not even the baby. If my parents could have supported me, I would have preferred to continue with education rather than get married. But I didn’t want to put pressure on them. So I just decided to get married to this man to survive.”
But marriage has changed little for her. She and tobacco farmer Maliki Hestone, trying to raise her six-month-old son, Bashiru Akim, face the same problems her parents failed to overcome. “Sometimes, because of the floods, the crops get washed away. At the end of the day, we get very little harvest from it,” she says. “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.”
Five hundred miles away, in the courtyard of a house on the edge of Moma, Majuma Julio is stirring a pot of maize, preparing lunch for husband, Juma Momade, who is holding their year-old daughter, Fatima, on his lap.
The couple married two years ago when Majuma was 15 and Juma was 19. It’s not what she wanted, Majuma says. But she was staying with an uncle, a farmer, who was paying to support her through school. The weather changed and there was no more money; marriage was the only solution.
“It was because of the sun. There was too much sun and the rain was not falling enough. His production started to decrease three years before the marriage,” says Majuma. “It used to rain for two months, but after a while it started coming less and less. I don’t blame anyone. The weather just changed. My uncle called me and informed me that there was a man who wanted to marry me. I accepted. I didn’t like the idea but I just accepted because I wanted to study.”
Majuma knew that marriage would mean children. But Juma had promised to support her. “Juma and the imam came to my uncle’s house, they did the ceremony and we were married. I am all right now. I feel better than when I was in my uncle’s house because my husband treats me well, I keep going to school, there’s no problem.
“I won’t let my daughter get married at 15 years old. She has to study.”
Up the coast from Moma, administrator Brigi Rupio looks out across the wide blue expanse of the Larde river. “When I arrived here in 2014, there was a house right next to the river,” he says, pointing to where the bank is being undercut by the current. “But in 2015, there were severe floods that destroyed houses and increased the level of the river. Then there was drought. We had areas where we used to produce rice. But because of the dry spells, it’s not possible any more. The weather is changing. Even those who cannot read or write can notice that.”
The young girls taken out of school to marry early can attest to that.