Vision / Sustainable futures / Assessing the effects of a changing climate on women and girls

Sustainable futures

Assessing the effects of a changing climate on women and girls

As reported by UN Women, women and girls face an abundance of amplified social and economic threats compounded by the impacts of climate change.

These threats include risks related to the UN's sustainable development goals SDG 5.3 and SDG 8.7 which reference “eliminate[ing] all harmful practices, such as child, early and forced marriage” and “tak[ing] immediate and effective measures to eradicate forced labour, ... modern slavery and human trafficking”. The recent Global Estimates on Modern Slavery by the ILO indicated that around 22 million people were living in a situation of forced marriage in 2021. Women are often at the forefront of climate change impacts, which is especially noted in rural communities and those who rely on subsistence activities for their livelihoods. Risks to agricultural production related to droughts, threats to schooling through changing weather patterns, and the risks of violence associated with natural hazard evacuations all place women and girls at greater risks of violence and harm.

As part of our work within the Rights Lab, our forthcoming critical interpretive synthesis on the interconnections between child, early and forced marriage (CEFM) and climate change addressed previous empirical literature on the topic to help us understand the trends between such topics. This is in order to assess empirical connections without the perpetuation of assumptions around the topic that often lack data or nuance (e.g., that forced marriage increases after a natural hazard – this may occur in some circumstances, but does it occur in all; there is little data to establish this as fact).

There are several key dimensions that can expose women and girls to either an increase in the risk of CEFM as a result of climate change effects, or reduce such conditions. One key factor in the increased risk of non-consensual marriages are that of exposure to or threat of sexual violence (whether real or perceived) particularly associated with short- and long-term displacement and accommodations in temporary housing. In what could be seen as a protective response associated with social and cultural norms, CEFM can become an immediate reaction to ensure women and girls in the family are not made socially vulnerable from outside threats (linked to honour and shame).

"The role of acute and slow-onset hazards can have varied complications for communities; but flooding and drought were regularly the most considered climate change exacerbated threats linked to CEFM."
Dr Bethany Jackson

Another trend are the responses associated with economic shocks. The role of acute and slow-onset hazards can have varied complications for communities; but flooding and drought were regularly the most considered climate change exacerbated threats linked to CEFM. Despite some slow-onset hazards being noted, there is a distinct lack of longitudinal understanding as to the point at which CEFM may become something a community may engage with. This links to themes of preparedness and what is defined as ‘adaptation’ – for example, access to knowledge, resources, or a change in cultural practices – which is something that is lacking in the current literature.

The geographical and traditional practices of marriage may also have a role to play in these circumstances – depending on whether a dowry or bride price is paid can alter the chances of CEFM taking place in a community affected by natural hazards. Further, embedded social structures (such as class or race) are linked to tipping points which could lead to vulnerabilities of CEFM in communities; where one community may face financial constraints that prevent traditional marriage practices occurring (including those which may be cases of CEFM), others could be ‘pushed’ toward choices that may increase the risks of CEFM for their family members.  

Finally, the impacts of climate change upon CEFM sit within a nested system of social, cultural, political and economic norms that vary by geography and community. These norms can lead to the exclusion of women from key knowledge around climate change impacts, which can increase their vulnerabilities. Yet, there is a way for this course to be corrected. Women are often the leaders in local community responses to climate change and emphasising their role and the importance of knowledge sharing and resource support will be vital in strengthening capacity in some communities. What is clear though is that the varied nature of CEFM responses to climate change mean there is no one size fits all solution, much like marriage itself.

The work presented here demonstrates the need for collaborative and transdisciplinary thought when addressing the global issues of climate change and CEFM, yet developments in our respective disciplines also occur. For example, the Rights Lab continues to work on these intersectional issues of gender and climate with current work in the Bangladesh-Indian border region of the Sundarbans exploring the links of gender, migration, and trafficking risks (including forced marriage) with partners; this forms part of a wider body of work exploring the concept of the ‘modern slavery-environmental degradation-climate change’ nexus. Whilst work on the risks associated with forced marriage both internationally and within the UK continue in order to explore policy change and support options for survivors, and working with partner organisations to be led by survivor voices.

This blog was based on the talk, 'Forced Marriage and Climate Change', provided by the research team Dr Jess Sparks, Dr Helen McCabe and Dr Bethany Jackson in 2021.


Dr Bethany Jackson

Dr Bethany Jackson is a Rights Lab Senior Research Fellow in Modern Slavery and Sustainable Ecosystems

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