Girls: Commodity or Resource in a Changing Climate?

I have researched issues related to women and girls from over 40 countries. In every one of these countries it is common and often traditional for girls to be considered a commodity. When resources are limited because of poverty, climate change, or natural disaster, girls’ usefulness as a commodity to exchange for something more valuable increases.

I believe that for this to change the international development community has to first acknowledge this fact and then convince girls, women, boys, men, policymakers, and government officials that girls are more valuable as educated, physically and mentally strong people with a voice—able to contribute to important conversations and national growth—than they are as young brides, uneducated household servants, or disposable property.
I know my view of girls’ status sounds harsh, and it would be easy to dismiss my view as hyperbolic and attention-seeking. But let me describe the current situation for girls in West Bengal, India, as one example. For poor families in rural villages in West Bengal, each girl born to that family is a burden. With very limited resources, a daughter has to be fed and educated, and, most onerous of all, a dowry will have to be paid at the time of her marriage—how much will depend on the community standard, but it is always more than a poor family can afford. Certainly, while daughters live with their parents they contribute to the household by providing physical labor—they fetch wood and water and work as day laborers in brick factories or on large farms. But having too many daughters can bankrupt a family. For families with one daughter and one or more sons, the family may be able to stay afloat because they will receive a dowry when their son marries. For families with many daughters and fewer sons or no sons, their survival is threatened.

I always say that education is the best heritage you can give, better than giving them a piece of land. Nobody is going to get their studies out of their minds, but a piece of land—you sell it and that's it.

—Rural mother, Peru

What are their choices? Usually when young girls marry older men, the dowry is lower or no dowry has to be paid. If a family lacks enough money for school fees, girls have to leave school and the pressure to marry her off immediately becomes intense. If you let her grow older in your household, paying for her food and care, you will have to pay a larger dowry and she will lose her looks, making it more difficult to marry her off. Girls who remain in school are less likely to be married off. Today, there is some recognition that an educated girl is worth more than an uneducated girl, which is a start.
Now, add to this precarious life a natural disaster caused by climate change. Three out of four people living in poverty rely on agriculture and natural resources to survive. Floods and droughts brought on by climate change threaten food production and supply. According to the Global Report on Food Crises, climate disasters triggered food crises across 23 countries—mostly in Africa—with shocks such as drought leaving more than 39 million people in need of urgent assistance. Picture a family that is barely surviving losing their home or their land or their animals. Or their land simply produces less. Perhaps they have one or more adolescent girls who can go to the city and earn money as a servant in a household or can be married to a 60-year-old man who will not require a dowry and will take away one obligation. These girls are at risk of being trafficked, their commodification complete.
Climate change is a huge and multifaceted issue. How do we get a country to focus on how it will affect adolescent girls? I think we have to see and treat adolescent girls as a resource, an asset in the fight against climate disaster and poverty. First, they must know their rights, their strength, and their value. Second, we must help them organize around the things they can do. For example, girls can raise food on very small pieces of land to help feed their family or raise funds. Many girls are optimistic and enthusiastic. They have not yet been beaten down by a lack of choice and agency. They are excited by bringing something new and valuable to their families. I have seen girls in West Bengal raise mushrooms in plastic bags under their beds and sell them for cash, which they give to their father. Suddenly, their fathers see their daughters differently. Girls who know their rights and are taught skills such as how to use their voice, how to grow food when land is scarce, dry, or too wet become a resource for their families. Girls who can fund their own education stay in school longer and marry later. We have seen this in West Bengal. 
I wish I could wave a magic wand and open the world’s eyes and hearts to the tremendous value of girls, but really girls can do that for themselves if given the information and knowledge they need. Let’s help them get it.