WORDS BY ANMOL IRFAN
PHOTOGRAPHS BY Eduard Sánchez Ribot
Set design by Laura Doardo
The Frontline looks at one disturbing outcome of Pakistan’s historic floods last year: child brides.
When Pakistan’s monsoon rains plunged a third of the country underwater in August, Dilmurad Lund and his family were forced to evacuate from their home in the Sindh province along the border of India. They packed a truck full of belongings and their cow and left for the city of Jamshoro to find shelter. Once the floodwaters receded, nothing but debris remained where their house once stood. The fields Lund used to farm were also ruined, and the family moved into a camp for displaced people a local group had set up. The family had no idea how they would support themselves in the coming months.
First, Lund sold off his cow for cash. When the situation still didn’t improve, he went into a market with two of his daughters, who were 10 and 12 years old, asking if anyone wanted to purchase them into marriage. He managed to find two men who each agreed to pay him 45,000 Pakistani Rupees (roughly $160) in return for his daughters.
“People think I’m cruel, but I had no choice,” he said. “They’re my daughters. I get to decide what’s best for them.”
The father still stands by his decision: he had to either sell his daughters off as child brides to feed the rest of his family or spend more time unhoused, worrying for their safety. “I was only able to evacuate my family members during the floods,” he said. “Now, I have no way to feed them.”
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.
Child marriage is among one of 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. The Horn of Africa’s ongoing drought (fueled by climate change) is also resulting in more children being sold as brides.
The early pressure on young wives to have children leads to many having multiple children before they are even 20 years old. Among those displaced in Pakistan were 130,000 pregnant women and girls, many of whom would give birth before the flood waters receded. After the floods, the lack of access to health care left women to give birth in flood relief camps under open skies. Here, mothers were forced to bring new life despite not knowing just what the future held for them or their children, having to rely on tarps and birthing kits provided by charities like Mama Baby Fund.
“If a girl is getting married, the expectation is to have a baby as soon as possible,” said Zahid Memon, director of the Centre of Excellence in Women and Child Health at Aga Khan University Hospital, one of the country’s leading private hospitals. “The pregnancy can be life-threatening for her … Seeking health care during pregnancy is quite expensive, and you have to travel for it, both of which are luxuries these young girls don’t have access to.”
So far, policy and disaster responses in Pakistan have failed to address this reality. During times of scarcity, families almost never choose to prioritize women. As a result, climate change has become yet another force driving women and young girls into marriage, motherhood, and lifelong reproductive health issues.
Mashooque Birhamani, CEO of the Sindh-based human rights organization Sujag Sansar, has focused on combatting child marriages by spreading awareness on social media, putting on plays that delve into the impact of child marriage, and pushing local police to create a separate station dedicated to women and children, which can keep them safe by providing protection, legal assistance, and access to women officers.
“Through our efforts, we saw child marriages slowly decreasing over the last few years, but after the floods, we’ve seen a sudden increase again,” Birhamani said. Lund’s incident wasn’t a one-off, said Um e Aiman, the communications manager at Sujag Sansar: “It’s very common for women to work in cotton fields, so if I was a villager and I get a wife for my brother, I also get another working member of the house. On the other hand, some parents sell their daughters. The concept of selling is that their income is low.”
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. Six months later, more than 10 million people were still without safe drinking water.
Pakistan saw a similar situation in 2010 when over 1,700 people were killed. Over 11 million people were unhoused. A study on the 2010 floods, which lasted almost six months in some areas, deduced (though was unable to confirm) that the maternal mortality rate reached 381 out of 100,000 people in some flood-affected 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.
Rural women in Pakistan, particularly those who work in agriculture, are some of the most vulnerable in the world. The work they do is informal and underpaid—with little to no labor protections. Harsh climate changes are forcing them to walk longer distances than before to retrieve water, putting them at risk of physical assault.
Coupled with the increasing pressure on agricultural lifestyles, women in rural areas can also face major reproductive issues. This is because women are often responsible for physically tasking jobs like picking the harvest and collecting water, which puts a strain on their bodies and health, especially as this work grows more difficult under climate change.
“We need to look at how these floods play into existing inequalities because they haven’t created brand-new experiences.”
This isn’t the only way women’s bodies are put under pressure. Many girls—as young as 9 or 10—are sent to urban areas to work as nannies or cleaners in homes to make a living.
“I feel so safe at this house I work at because my employer’s husband talks to us with respect,” said a young girl earlier this year who left her village in Punjab, Pakistan, to work for an affluent family in the city of Karachi.
What was meant to be a basic right came as a privilege to her. The mix of fear and hope in her facial expression spoke of all the times male employers had treated her as anything but a child. Her older sisters had started working after the 2010 floods when the family lost their house. With little pay and increasing inflation, her parents sent her away as soon as they considered her old enough.
Reetika Subramanian, a journalist and researcher who runs the podcast project Climate Brides, focuses her work on exploring the connection between climate change and early marriages, particularly in India where she completed her doctorate degree.
“We need to look at how these floods play into existing inequalities because they haven’t created brand-new experiences,” Subramanian said. “Rather, they’ve only escalated existing issues, such as school dropouts.”
For instance, Subramanian learned while doing fieldwork in West India that more families were marrying off their daughters during the height of the pandemic when they couldn’t go to school in person. Parents couldn’t afford the extra meal.
Maryam Jamali is a 19-year-old who runs Madat Balochistan, an organization working in the rural areas of Sindh and Balochistan provinces initially to provide flood relief but now also to offer women resources. Jamali, who grew up in a small rural village in the region, has noticed that early marriage is influenced by lifestyle changes, migration patterns, and economic instability—all of which have been affected by changing climate patterns over the last decade.
“When I was a kid, my entire family lived in our village, but now because of climate change and extreme … temperatures for several months, that’s been pushing people to go to urban centers,” she said. “People left behind have to travel farther to access doctors, teachers, and other skilled workers and resources.”
“People think I’m cruel, but I had no choice.”
A midwife in her area told Jamali that she’d be getting her daughter married early now because of the money she would be paid despite earlier expressing hope that her daughter would become a Lady Health Worker, a woman who is medically trained to provide care in rural and urban low-income areas where access to doctors and hospitals is limited.
Only 19 years old, Jamali seems older: the emotional toll of her work shows in her voice. She risks losing the life she knew as a child as the slow migration of people to the city threatens to kill the rural culture she grew up in. Jamali feels even more alienated when, instead of asking her community what they need, outsiders who come to “help” speak over them and impose their beliefs on them. These approaches also hinder progress when it comes to trying to implement change because when local communities are not given a say, new ideas cannot take root.
“Lots of relief workers had a tendency to misinterpret practices,” she said. “Relief workers had little space for giving women options to choose … There were a lot of narratives of ‘poor uncivilized women’ using leaves and sand to manage their periods. It’s not as black and white as women in rural areas don’t have access to menstrual hygiene, so we must give them pads.”
Until this approach to “helping” changes, implementing systemic solutions will be a distant reality. Workers on the ground constantly ask those in positions of power to look at this issue from a broader point of view. They want holistic solutions that recognize the multiple issues at play.
Lund got a lot of backlash when he married off his daughters. Many would agree: the outrage was well-placed. Unfortunately, there’s a high chance his daughters will be forced to do the same to their daughters if the situation in Pakistan doesn’t improve. The floods will keep coming. More families will be displaced. Another generation of girls will be sold into marriage.
Pointing fingers is easy. Solving problems is harder. To save young girls from such terrifying predicaments, those in power who routinely look away from these stories must open their eyes and listen. Saying this is wrong is no longer enough. Communities need consistent resources and support.
What could’ve happened to Lund’s two daughters if they also had been able to go to school, to grow up with full tummies and a roof over their heads? Where would their lives be now? Perhaps, they’d be learning to read and write instead of giving their husbands children. What a world: where baby girls have babies, where climate change forces fathers to sell their daughters. Other options exist—if only world leaders would open their eyes.