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Rajesh Sada, 16, and his wife, Punita, 15, in Gorgama, Nepal on Saturday, June 1, 2019.LAUREN DECICCA/The New York Times News Service

“One day, I was playing with my siblings and friends,” Kumari Lama recalled of the moment her life as a 16-year-old in the Nuwakot district of Nepal changed forever, “and the next day, I was married off.”

Her parents forced her to stop going to school, stop seeing her circle of friends and leave her family to move to another village and marry a complete stranger. She met her husband for the first time on the day of her wedding.

Now a mother to a three-year-old girl, Ms. Lama doesn’t fault her parents for forcing her into a marriage when she was just a child. In Nepal, girls like her have been made to drop out of school and get married, sometimes owing to illiteracy, poverty and caste discrimination. It is also used as a means of alleviating financial hardships caused by extreme weather and natural disasters.

“My parents are very poor and illiterate, and the tragedy is we lost the harvest in the only piece of land we had due to floods. We used to earn some money by selling crops from there. As we had no other source of income, my parents decided to drop me out of school and get me married,” Ms. Lama said.

Child marriage is a punishable offence in Nepal but it is one of the country’s grim realities. Nepal has the third-highest rate of child marriage in South Asia, behind India and Bangladesh.

Now, a non-profit group in Nepal is warning that climate change is fuelling the rise of child marriages. Families that rely on farming are struggling to cope with a succession of droughts and floods that have destroyed their harvests, driving them to marry off their daughters.

“The linkage between child marriage and climate change, though far from being recognized, is actually stronger than it is believed to be,” says Medha Sharma, president of Visible Impact, a non-governmental organization that aims to protect women and girls, including those whose livelihoods have been affected by climate change.

The government of Nepal has started documenting how children from disaster-prone and disaster-affected areas are being subject to child, early and forced marriage, also known as CEFM. ”Climate change-led food insecurity is causing parents to send daughters off early, while the in-laws are also looking for an additional hand in the fields,” Ms. Sharma said.

The girls at greatest risk of early marriage are often those living in rural parts of the country that are hard to reach – particularly districts in the west that have been hit hard by the effects of a warming world.

Large swaths of western Nepal endured a drought from October, 2020, to February, 2021, followed by deadly forest fires in April. With the region already reeling from those natural disasters, unseasonal heavy rains hit in October, pushing more families already in a precarious situation further over the edge.

The United Nations Population Fund in Nepal warned in a recent report that the monsoon floods have led to major agricultural losses, with heavy damage to both land and crop yields, as well as crucial food supplies.

Bajura is one of the drought-hit districts in western Nepal affected by natural disasters. The exacerbation of poverty and insecurity triggered by the extreme weather meant that Sita Kumari was forced to marry a stranger when she was 15 years old.

“My father died while working in India five years ago and my mother raised me and my brother with difficulty. Our economic condition is very poor and drought and wildfires destroyed our crops. It aggravated our economic condition and we had to struggle even to meet our daily needs. So, I was married to escape the poverty,” she said.

Ms. Kumari is now a mother of a one-month-old baby girl and continues to live a hard life. Her husband works in India to support her and their daughter. He is only able to bring up US$300 every six months – barely enough to sustain the nuclear family.

Ms. Sharma of Visible Impact warned that early marriage also affects the physical health and reproductive abilities of girls forced into the arrangements.

“The challenge is not only about getting married early but that the effect of climate change and poverty on the reproductive health of the child is vicious. It’s high time that we recognize this linkage. I commit to and call on the government, individuals and civil society actors to act for it.”

The Nepalese government says it is striving to eliminate child marriage by 2030 and that it is working with provincial authorities, and other partners at home and abroad, to develop a national strategy that will put an end to the problem.

“By 2030, the government also plans to implement climate-resilient and gender-responsive plans. We hope that these measures will help in ending child marriage,” said Raghu Ram of Nepal’s Ministry of Women, Children and Social Welfare.

Nepal’s strategy will include awareness campaigns to educate children and their parents on the importance of ending child marriage as well as research to help authorities formulate an action plan to achieve their goal.

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