Climate displacement and sexual exploitation

| 13th November 2018
A Bangladeshi woman
Climate displacement increases the risk of child marriage and child prostitution.


Bangladesh is on the frontline of climate change and one of the countries with the highest child marriage rates in the world.

The country's vulnerability to climate-related events pushes families to marry off their daughters at an early age, according to a 2015 report by Human Rights Watch.

Steve Trent, the director of the Environmental Justice Foundation in London, said: “Climate change is a gender issue. It affects women first and worst. That is replicated across different geographies, different countries and different cultures". 

Gender-based violence

Alexandra Bilak, the director of the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) in Geneva, has argued: “Since 2008, we have reported an average number of 21.4 million new displacements by climate-related events. 

"The number of climate-related displacements have been far higher than conflict and violence-related displacements across the world.” 

Nazhat Shameem Khan, Fiji's Permanent Representative to the United Nations in Geneva, elaborates: “It is a gender issue because not all decisions made in relation to climate change are made with the full participation of women, because negotiation rooms do not have many women in them, and because it has a disproportionate effect on women and girls in society".

Elhadj As Sy, the Secretary General of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, said: “We are not all equal in front of shocks and hazards. The elderly, women and children are disproportionally affected.

"And that’s unfortunately the reason why we are seeing horrible things happening even in the context of natural disasters that are related to gender-based violence, sexual exploitation, [and] trafficking.”

Child marriage

Lakshmi Sundaram, the executive director of Girls Not Brides in London, said: “Many of the countries that are really affected by climate displacement are also countries that have high rates of child marriage. 

"Often it is the families and the girls who are on the brink of poverty that are most affected by climate displacement and also turn to child marriage as a coping mechanism when things become really difficult for that family".

Saleemul Huq, the Director of the International Centre for Climate Change and Development in Dhaka, has argued that climate displacement increases the risk of child marriage and child prostitution in Bangladesh.

The distress of displacement increases the difficulty for parents to feed their children and pushes them to marry off their daughters with strangers at an earlier age than planned. 

Huq said that many husbands "end up taking the girls into the city of Dhaka and have them work as sex workers”.

Pakhi’s story

Pakhi (who did not want to disclose her real name) is 18. She came from a poor rural family in the Narayanganj District in Bangladesh. She was married off at the age of 11 and had her first child two years later, but she was abused by her husband and decided to divorce him.

She moved back with her parents until their house was washed away by a flood. Pakhi said: “We built a tent with plastic materials and stayed there. I didn’t see any hope at all, because my family was weak and sick. The situation was horrible.

She migrated to Dhaka and joined the sex industry at the age of 14 to help her family. Pakhi explained: “I am the main provider for my family and I support them through my sex work. It is very painful, both physically and mentally."

Pakhi's mother has engaged in occasional sex work to feed the family ever since their house was washed away, explained a friend.

Pakhi said: “If the flood wouldn’t have washed away our house, we would still have lived there. If we would have lived there, my parents would still have work and we would have enough to support ourselves. We would not have to pay rent for our house and the income could instead go to savings. The flood was the only reason our lives were ruined."

Madeline Garlick, the Senior Legal Coordinator and Head of Protection Policy at UNHCR in Geneva, said: “The number of people displaced, whether within their own countries or across borders to other states, is inevitably - as a result of climate change and natural disasters - going to continue in the future to rise."

This Author

Otto Simonsson is a PhD student at Oxford University and a freelance contributor on climate change issues for the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

One Every Second


The Ecologist has a formidable reputation built on fifty years of investigative journalism and compelling commentary from writers across the world. Now, as we face the compound crises of climate breakdown, biodiversity collapse and social injustice, the need for rigorous, trusted and ethical journalism has never been greater. This is the moment to consolidate, connect and rise to meet the challenges of our changing world. The Ecologist is owned and published by the Resurgence Trust. Support The Resurgence Trust from as little as £1. Thank you. Donate here