In April last year, 17-year-old Rani Khatun, a resident of Sagar Island in the Sundarbans, would spend most of her day in school, preparing for the upcoming board exams. She wanted to be a teacher one day.
Less than a year later, Khatun is a school dropout and a victim of domestic violence after a forced underage marriage.
Sundarbans, the world’s biggest delta, is a 10,000 sq km (6,213 sq miles) dense forest of tidal mangroves, straddling India’s eastern coastline and western Bangladesh, opening into the Bay of 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, paddy and betel leaf cultivation, and honey collection.
Sagar Island, spread over 282 sq km (175 sq miles), is home to more than 200,000 people.
The deltaic region saw large-scale migration of people to cities for work in 2009 after Cyclone Aila devastated the region, killing more than 300 people. But many had to return after they lost their jobs due to the coronavirus lockdown imposed in March last year.
As they returned, another super cyclone, Amphan, ravaged Sundarbans in May 2020, killing more than 100 people.
Khatun’s father, Sheikh Mustafa, who ran a tailoring shop, saw his income dip to near zero after the lockdown was imposed last year.
Even as COVID-19 restrictions were eased in June, the 46-year-old could not re-establish his tailoring business due to rampant poverty in the region, pushing the family into acute financial distress.
Then came a marriage proposal for Khatun, with the groom’s family demanding little dowry. Though outlawed, the practice of dowry continues in the Indian subcontinent, in which money and expensive gifts are given to the groom’s family for marriage.
Though Khatun was a minor who could not be married according to Indian laws, her family married her off.
“The groom’s family didn’t demand any money. We thought by marrying off our daughter, we would have one person less to feed,” Khatun’s mother Nazula Biwi told Al Jazeera.
However, Khatun was allegedly assaulted by her husband and in-laws and she came back within a month to her parents, who have ended up with a bigger liability – a debt of 80,000 Indian rupees ($1,104), which they had taken for their daughter’s marriage.
Like Khatun, other young girls in the Sundarbans are also being forced into marriage due to poverty, worsened by climate change as recurrent storms and rising sea level lead to land loss and fall in farm productivity due to saline water intrusion.
The COVID-19 pandemic, resulting in job losses and more poverty, has only aggravated the crisis.
Rise in underage marriages
According to UNICEF estimates, at least 1.5 million Indian girls below the age of 18 are married off every year and nearly 16 percent girls aged between 15 and 19 are currently married.
After the pandemic and Cyclone Amphan hit the Sundarbans, reports suggest a substantial spike in the numbers.
Laboni Singha Das, a representative of Childline India Foundation, a government-appointed coordinating agency focused on ending child marriages in West Bengal, said there has been an unusual spike in the cases of child marriage on Sagar Island alone in the last year.
Das said she has rescued close to 50 girls from child marriages in less than a year after receiving tip-offs about their marriages.
Once Childline is alerted to a child marriage through its helpline or other means, it intervenes to stop the marriage by going to the spot along with the police.
Das attributed the spike in child marriages to the prolonged closure of schools due to the pandemic. With girls engaged more in housework, they got disconnected from education, she said. “The most vulnerable are those aged between 13-16 years.”
Nihar Ranjan Raptan, secretary of Goranbose Gram Bikas Kendra, an NGO fighting child marriages in the region, said while four-five cases of child marriages were reported in the region every month, that number has gone up to eight to 10 since the pandemic.
In June last year, the West Bengal Commission for Protection of Child Rights, a government body, set up a special team in association with various NGOs to deal with child marriages in the Sunderbans.
Any case of child marriage could be reported over the phone or WhatsApp on a number provided by the agency.
The government has also made it mandatory for the children forced into child marriages to be sent to rehabilitation centres for a minimum of 40 days. At these centres, the girls are offered psychological counselling, vocational training and, if needed, even enrolment in schools.
Those who facilitated the marriage could be imprisoned for up to two years and fined 100,000 Indian rupees ($1,360).
Climate change and women
Faced with environmental degradation and resultant poverty, women suffer differently from men. They continue to remain marginalised and fall prey to child marriages, trafficking and domestic violence.
“The evidence regarding the gendered effects of climate change is presently limited but there has been extensive research showing that when poor households in developing countries are hit by adverse economic shocks, women and girls suffer considerably more than men and boys,” said Zaki Wahhaj, co-director of Development Economics Research Centre at the University of Kent.
Anurag Danda, a senior visiting fellow with think-tank Observer Research Foundation’s Energy and Climate Change Programme, said he will not “attribute incidences of child trafficking and marriages to Amphan or COVID alone”.
“However, economic hardships have an ecological angle. As land turns saline or there are breaches of embankments, people lose land and economic hardships ensue. Also, with every generation, landholdings turn smaller as they get divided among scions. All this leads to a higher incidence of poverty and subsequently child marriages and trafficking,” he told Al Jazeera.
A study by M Niaz Asadullah, Kazi Md Mukitul Islam and Zaki Wahhaj, published in the Journal of Biosocial Science, examined the reasons leading to child marriage in eight villages in the climate-affected areas of coastal Bangladesh. The study found that more than two-thirds of the respondents had encountered at least one event of a natural disaster before marriage.
“These patterns suggest that climate change may be worsening the problem of child marriage in the Sundarbans region,” Wahhaj told Al Jazeera.
Ajanta Dey, joint secretary of Nature Environment and Wildlife Society (NEWS), said the experience after Cyclone Aila showed that climate change affected women much more than men.
“Be it in the form of trafficking or child marriage, women are first impacted due to climate change,” he said.
After Cyclone Aila devastated the region in 2009, submerging the nearby islands of Lohachara and Suparibhanga, Sagar Island became the home of a large number of climate refugees.
After migrating to the island, more than 64 percent of its residents had to change their original livelihoods, according to a 2012 study. Nearly 20 percent of former farmers and more than 6 percent of fishermen became daily wage labourers, while 35 percent of people took to other jobs, said the study.
While frequent storms cause extensive damage, the Sundarbans have also been witnessing a rapid loss of land for years due to a rise in temperature.
“The waters of Bay of Bengal have been rising up to twice as fast as the global average at about 4.4-6.3mm a year as temperature in the region is rising faster than other regions,” said a 2018 study by climate physicist Chirag Dhara.
The Sundarbans Delta is sinking at a rate of about 2-4mm a year, he said. Dhara added that the rise in sea levels around the Sundarbans at 8mm a year was nearly three times faster than the global average and as high as 12mm a year on Sagar Island.
While rising sea continues to shrink habitable land in the region, the dreams of girls like Rani Khatun continue to get broken. She is back in school, but not sure if another storm will sink her ambitions again.
This story was produced with support from Internews' Earth Journalism Network, and was originally published in Al Jazeera on 14 April 2021.
Banner image: Women and children outside their house at Sagar Island in the Sundarbans / Credit: Namrata Acharya.