India: COVID, climate change pushing women of the Sundarbans in distress

Sagar Island, India – In April last year, 17-year-old Rani Khatun, a resident of Sagar Island in the Sundarbans, spent most of her day at school preparing for upcoming board exams. She wanted to become a teacher one day.

Less than a year later, Khatun is a school dropout and victim of domestic violence after a forced marriage of minors.

The Sundarbans, the world’s largest delta, are a 10,000 km2 (6,213 sq mi) dense tidal mangrove forest, straddling the east coast of India and western Bangladesh, opening onto the Gulf from Bengal.

Crisscrossed by rivers, it is home to nearly 4.5 million people on the Indian side, with a large part of its population being subsistence farmers, dependent on fishing, growing rice and betel leaves, and collecting. of honey.

Sagar Island, spread over 282 km2 (175 square miles), is home to more than 200,000 people.

The delta region saw a large-scale migration of people to cities for work in 2009 after Cyclone Aila devastated the region, killing more than 300 people. But many have had to return after losing their jobs due to the coronavirus lockdown imposed in March of last year.

Upon their return, another super cyclone, Amphan, ravaged the Sundarbans in May 2020, killing more than 100 people.

An abandoned house by the Muriganga river in the Sundarbans [Namrata Acharya/Al Jazeera]

Khatun’s father, who ran a sewing workshop, saw his income drop to almost zero after the lockdown was imposed last year.

Even though COVID-19 restrictions were relaxed in June, Khatun’s father was unable to reestablish his sewing business due to endemic poverty in the area, plunging the family into severe financial distress.

Then came a proposal for Khatun, the groom’s family demanding a small dowry. Although prohibited, the practice of dowry continues in the Indian subcontinent, in which money and expensive gifts are given to the groom’s family for the wedding.

Although Khatun was a minor who could not be married under Indian laws, her family married her.

“The groom’s family did not ask for money. We thought that by marrying our daughter, we would have one less person to feed, ”Khatun’s mother, Nazula Biwi, told Al Jazeera.

However, Khatun was reportedly assaulted by her husband and in-laws and returned within a month to her parents, who were left with a greater responsibility – a debt of 80,000 Indian rupees ($ 1,104). , which they had contracted for their daughter. wedding.

Like Khatun, other young girls in the Sundarbans are also forced to marry due to poverty, made worse by climate change, as recurring storms and rising sea levels lead to loss of land and declining land. agricultural productivity due to the intrusion of saline water.

The COVID-19 pandemic, which has resulted in job losses and more poverty, has only worsened the crisis.

A cabin on Sagar Island in the Sundarbans [Namrata Acharya/Al Jazeera]

Increase in underage marriages

According to UNICEF estimates, at least 1.5 million Indian girls under the age of 18 are married each year and almost 16% of girls aged 15-19 are currently married.

After the pandemic and Cyclone Amphan hit the Sundarbans, reports suggest a substantial increase in numbers.

Laboni Singha Das, a representative of the Childline India Foundation, a government-appointed umbrella agency that focuses on ending child marriage in West Bengal, said there had been an unusual spike in cases of child marriage on the island of Sagar only in the last year.

Das said she saved nearly 50 girls from child marriage in less than a year after receiving information about their marriages.

Once Childline is alerted to a child marriage through her helpline or other means, she intervenes to end the marriage by going to the scene with the police.

Das attributed the surge in child marriage to the extended school closures due to the pandemic. As girls were more engaged in household chores, they were disconnected from education, she said. “The most vulnerable are people aged 13 to 16.”

Nihar Ranjan Raptan, secretary of Goranbose Gram Bikas Kendra, an NGO fighting child marriage in the region, said that while four to five cases of child marriage were reported in the region each month, that number has risen. to eight to ten since the pandemic.

In June of last year, the West Bengal Commission for the Protection of the Rights of the Child, a government agency, set up a task force in association with various NGOs to deal with child marriage in the Sunderbans.

Any case of child marriage can be reported by phone or WhatsApp on a number provided by the agency.

The government has also made it compulsory to send children forced into child marriage to rehabilitation centers for at least 40 days. In these centers, girls receive psychological counseling, vocational training and, if necessary, enrollment in school.

Those who facilitated the marriage could be jailed for up to two years and fined 100,000 Indian rupees ($ 1,360).

Broken embankments at Sagar Island in the Sundarbans [Namrata Acharya/Al Jazeera]

Climate change and women

Faced with environmental degradation and the resulting poverty, women suffer differently from men. They remain marginalized and fall prey to child marriage, trafficking and domestic violence.

“Evidence regarding the gendered effects of climate change is currently limited, but extensive research has shown that when poor households in developing countries are hit by adverse economic shocks, women and girls suffer much more than men and women. boys, ”said Zaki Wahhaj, co-director of the University of Kent’s Development Economics Research Center.

Anurag Danda, principal researcher in the Energy and Climate Change Think Tank at the Observer Research Foundation, said he “would not attribute the incidences of child trafficking and marriage to Amphan or COVID alone. “.

“However, the economic difficulties have an ecological angle. As the land becomes saline or there is breakage of embankments, people lose land and economic hardship ensues. In addition, with each generation, land holdings become smaller as they are divided among descendants. All of this leads to a higher incidence of poverty and, subsequently, child marriage and trafficking, ”he told Al Jazeera.

A study by Mr. Niaz Asadullah, Kazi Md Mukitul Islam and Zaki Wahhaj, published in the Journal of Biosocial Science, examined the reasons for child marriage in eight villages in climate-affected areas on the coast of Bangladesh. The study found that more than two-thirds of respondents had experienced at least one natural disaster event before marriage.

“These models suggest that climate change may worsen the problem of child marriage in the Sundarbans region,” Wahhaj told Al Jazeera.

Ajanta Dey, co-secretary of Nature Environment and Wildlife Society (NEWS), said the experience after Cyclone Aila showed that climate change affected women much more than men.

“Whether in the form of trafficking or child marriage, women are first affected by climate change,” he said.

Hostile landscape

After Cyclone Aila devastated the region in 2009, submerging neighboring islands of Lohachara and Suparibhanga, Sagar Island became home to large numbers of climate refugees.

After migrating to the island, more than 64% of its inhabitants had to change their original livelihoods, according to a 2012 study. Almost 20 percent of former farmers and more than 6 percent of fishermen became day laborers, while 35 percent of people took other jobs, according to the study.

While frequent storms cause extensive damage, the Sundarbans have also witnessed rapid loss of land for years due to an increase in temperature.

“The waters of the Bay of Bengal have risen up to twice as fast as the world average, about 4.4 to 6.3 mm per year, as the temperature in the region is rising faster than in other regions.” , said a 2018 study by climate physicist Chirag Dhara.

The Sundarbans Delta is sinking at a rate of about 2-4mm per year, he said. Dhara added that the sea level rise around the Sundarbans at 8mm per year was nearly three times faster than the global average and as high as 12mm per year on Sagar Island.

As the rising sea continues to reduce habitable land in the area, the dreams of girls like Rani Khatun continue to be shattered. She’s back to school, but she doesn’t know if another storm will sink her ambitions again.

(This report was produced with a grant from the Internews Earth Journalism Network)

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