Financial, emotional stresses of displacement and disaster have affected Pakistani women due to patriarchal structures.
In her cosy bedroom, Alina gets up by the snuggle of her mom telling her to take a shower before a hot and nutritious breakfast waiting in the kitchen. Today is Alina’s final school exam. Sumaiya, in a parallel world, wakes by the roars of fighting dogs outside her semi-bricked house, gets to eat only once a day, rears cows, works in the cotton field, cooks a meal for the family and takes care of her newborn. She has not turned 18 yet. Last year’s flooding forced her to become a climate bride.
As Pakistan suffered from historic rains last year — likely worsened by climate change — the initial shock and floods wore off to more long-term and disturbing issues like child marriage. The financial and emotional stresses of displacement and disaster have affected Pakistani women due to the patriarchal structures that often put their lives, which are valued less than men’s, under the control of someone else.
“When a flood strikes I [women] am affected. I lose my family, my household, my friends and everything in my possession. But when relief funds are distributed I [women] can only get it through the male of my house, whether it is my father, brother or son. The person who distributes the fund is a male, the person who rescues me [a woman] is a male. The person who decides on my shelter is also a male. Tell me how I can plead my case when there are no women involved?” said Granaz Baloch, the founder of Udaan, an organisation working for poverty, education, health and gender equality.
Child marriage is among the many issues that disproportionately affect women and girls in the aftermath of extreme weather. Pakistan has the sixth highest number of girls under 18 married in the world. Other countries experiencing this crisis include Bangladesh and Niger. For many hit by the natural calamity, it becomes a tradeoff between being alive or keeping their daughters with them.
“When I returned home after the floods, I could only find debris where I once had my house. Everything else had been washed away. We had nothing to eat. I had to sell my cow, but the cash did not last long. Then I had to sell my daughters into marriage,” said Hafeez-ud-Din, the guy who sold his two daughters after the floods.
To him, he had no other option as selling her daughters will gain her some cash and he does not have to worry about the safety of his daughter in shelter tents. On the other hand, the buyer will get another hand to work in the cotton fields.
Unfortunately, these young girls were not the only ones who were forced into early marriages due to climate catastrophe. Climate change is pushing more families to make such decisions. Last year’s floods in Pakistan washed away much of the upcoming harvest, along with entire homes, livestock and health facilities. In Sindh alone, 80% of the rice crop and 88% of the cotton crop for the year were lost.
Pakistan saw a similar situation in 2010 when over 11 million people were left homeless. A study on the 2010 floods deduced (though was unable to confirm) that the maternal mortality rate reached 381 out of 100,000 people in some flood-hit areas. The study also found that the marriage rate for girls between 15 and 19 spiked from 10.7% to 16% the year after the floods. Despite these findings, the aftermath of the 2022 floods has followed similar patterns. Reports of sexual assault arose as women who lost their homes were forced into camps for displaced people.
The policy and disaster responses in Pakistan have failed to address this reality. During times of scarcity, families almost never choose to prioritise women. As a result, climate change has become yet another force driving women and young girls into marriage, motherhood and lifelong reproductive health issues.
Sumaira, who was sold as a ‘climate bride’, died this year while giving birth to her third child. Alina graduated with a degree in Textiles. While the identities have been altered to protect privacy, the enduring suffering of young girls coerced into an uncertain future due to climate catastrophe remains unaltered.