Untangling the Connections Between Climate Change and Reproductive Justice

When you think of climate change, what comes to mind? Without generalizing too much, it’s probably safe to say that you’re thinking of emaciated polar bears trapped alone on a thin sliver of iceberg, or about dried up rivers and lakes so expansive their dusty trails can be seen from space.

Perhaps your understanding is a bit more scientific and advanced, in which case, bravo! But for those of you whose imagination immediately rendered a lonely and starving polar bear, who can blame you? Our understanding of such a complex and elusive term has been aided in large part by the media’s portrayals. And the media has publicized LOTS of dying polar bears. As incredible as this may seem, climate change has become so mainstream that we might even label climate change-related rhetoric as cliché.

Polar bear sliding off an ice floe. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

But, why? And, how?! Interestingly, climate change is not often expressed in terms of the quotidian or the mundane; in contrast, what we, as civilians and non-scientists, are routinely presented with are globalized, MACRO-sized, apocalyptic conclusions. This might be effective in some circles and for certain purposes, but it might also elicit a feeling of paralysis to the individual — cue: “it’s just TOO big of an effort to even understand fully, much less tackle completely.” For the record(!), this internalization, in addition to being a widely-used scare tactic, is a misnomer – in part fueled by disassociation and alienation.

While we’re on this topic, here’s another question for you: Is it also safe to assume that you yourself, as an individual, have not been directly affected by climate change? If you think about this critically, you will probably have a hard time answering this. What does it mean to be “directly” affected, and why is that important?

Folsom Lake, California in November 2015 with record low water levels due to the drought. Photo by Vince Mig.

In a sense, many of our conceptualizations of climate change have been a bit abstracted. That is, our association with the term and its implications are that it is both pedantic and intangible; complex and unapproachable — and, at least up until very recently (re: raging fires, hurricanes, BOMB cyclones, floods, snowstorms) so distant from our daily lives that we might actually be able to believe the relentless anti-climate change rhetoric that consumes many news stations.

But, what if climate change directed your entire life? What if climate change decided your ability to receive an education, to find a job, to choose your partner, or to become economically solvent?

A recent article published by The Guardian (2017) exposes the astonishing realities of some of the world’s poorest African regions, and elucidates the direct impact that climate change can have on individuals, and in particular young girls. And the results are staggering.

Take Ntonya, for example, a young resident of Malawi who was forced into marriage at the young age of 13. Ntonya’s family field in Malawi was devastated by harsh floods, leading her family to push her into marriage. Or Carlina, who also married at the age of 13, seemingly as a direct consequence of the river she lived next to and used for economic survival (fishing, in particular) running dry. (The Guardian, 2017)

A young woman waits for consultation at Quirimba Health Post, Mozambique. © 2012 Arturo Sanabria, Courtesy of Photoshare

While the correlation between increases in child brides and climate change is fairly new, some estimates show that about 30% – 40% of child marriages in Malawi are due to floods and droughts brought about by climate change (Walker, 2012). Interestingly, this figure is likely underestimated because many marriages are unrecorded and informal.

Okay, okay – I’m sure you’re thinking, “well, there are many factors that cause parents to force children to marry, and how can we relate the incidents of child brides to natural disasters, such as floods or droughts?” Indeed, marriage as a form of economic incentive has long been a reality, particularly in poor and highly patriarchal societies where fertility rates are normally high and the capacity to feed a large family is very low. Child marriage is such a known issue that some governments actively work to confront it – for example, the state of Malawi made marriage below the age of 18 illegal in 2015 (Batha, 2015). And yet, the recorded incidence of child brides continues to expand. Why is this?

One of the new factors at play here seems to be climate change. When changes in climate, such as large-scale floods and droughts, influence a region’s arable land, availability of fish, etc., people and families are forced to look elsewhere for economic survival. Individuals and families are forced to come to terms with the fact that they are unable to feed their children or send them to school.

Filomena Antonio, for example, was 15 when 21-year old Momande Churute offered her father, Antonio, 2,000 Mozambican meticals (around $30) to marry his daughter. Struggling to make a sustainable living as a fisherman because of increased temperatures, as well as rising sea levels and stronger waves, Antonio felt that the acceptance of this offer, despite Filomena’s young age, might afford her more opportunity – including increased financial support and even school (Chamberlain, 2017). Antonio’s story is not unlike many others in the region. In fact, out of the “4 or 5 million girls at risk of getting married in Malawi, around 1.5 million girls are at risk of getting married because of climate change related events.”

The correlation between poverty and child marriage seems to be relatively clear. However, the staggering connection here is that it is being significantly impacted by global climate change. Amos Mtonya, a member of Malawi’s department of climate change and meteorological services, told the Guardian: “When it starts to rain, they immediately start planting. But then, three weeks later, they realize that everything they planted is dry. So to some, giving away their girl child can be a relief. It can also help the husband’s family, since it gets someone to assist with household chores. Of course tradition plays its role, but climate change will encourage people to get married early.”

A young mother and her new baby in Massinga, Mozambique, stand in the doorway of the local hospital’s Casa de Espera or “House of Waiting.” © 2009 Keri Ladd, Courtesy of Photoshare

The Guardian’s article is a must read, as it explains these correlations in detail and contextualizes them using many interesting, albeit disconcerting, personal stories. In essence, the implications of climate change are increasingly tangible, especially for those in regions where economic opportunity, often a reflection of subsistence agriculture and localized trade, is highly contingent upon the maintenance of local and regional ecosystems. And, the ultimate, ironic tragedy of this conversation is that those least able to deal with the effects of climate change will also, in turn, be the most directly affected. And while limiting the implications of climate change on particular regions seems to be a bit of a stretch, there are some ways we can start to address this issue.

The fact is, women who start having children at younger ages are more likely to have more children overall, in part because their child bearing years are longer (WHO, 2018). This is of particular concern regarding their capacity (or not) to then receive an education, secure employment, and maintain relative autonomy in their lives (could you imagine having a child as a child?!). High fertility rates are particularly pervasive in nations currently considered to be “developing” – where compromised economies are often coupled with limited access to healthcare and cultural barriers to obtaining contraceptives and family planning education.

Okay, fine. That might not be too terribly surprising. But here’s the kicker: there are over 214 million women in developing countries who actually WANT to prevent pregnancy but are not currently using any form of contraception (Ntoyna, Carlina, and Filomena being among them). Yes, that’s true. If you want to fact check, go ahead: https://www.guttmacher.org/fact-sheet/adding-it-up-contraception-mnh-2017 (Guttmacher, 2017).

AND when women have access to a full-range of healthcare, including family planning, fertility rates ‘naturally’ drop (same link). Wait, wait – opportunity affords autonomy? NO WAY.

Ahhh, such interconnected issues, right?! Now it might be easier to make some of the important connections between population growth and reproductive justice – and to clarify how global climate change’s effects on some of the poorest regions in the world might also be a result structural inequalities related to healthcare. In other words, one way to help mitigate the many social and environmental effects of high fertility rates throughout the world is to increase access to care, particularly for women.

One important solution that we advocate for is to increase access to contraceptives and family planning by developing key allies in Congress who will invest in U.S. family planning aid. Reproductive justice, in terms of access to healthcare, contraceptives, family planning, and education, is vital to decreasing fertility rates and thus the incidence of extremely young mothers, even amidst a changing global climate. And, as you might have already imagined, funding for domestic and international family planning is completely under attack.

There’s credible evidence indicating that slowing population growth could be one of the largest factors in mitigating climate change—through the combination of family planning and girls’ education. By ensuring full autonomy and access to reproductive healthcare today, we can improve people’s lives and foster a brighter outlook for girls and women in the developing world well into the future. Tomorrow’s polar bears may thank us, too.


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Batha, E. 2015. Malawi Bans Child Marriage, Lifts Minimum Age to 18. Reuters.

Chamberlain, G. 2017. Why Climate Change is Creating a New Generation of Child Brides. The Guardian.

Walker, J. A. 2012. Early Marriage in Africa – Trends, Harmful Effects and Interventions. African Journal Of Reproductive Health, 16(2), (231-240).

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