Battling climate change with school and success

Youth Skills in South Asia

UNICEF Bangladesh
Mahadi, an adolescent boy, smiles at the camera wearing a dark blue shirt striped with red lines.
UNICEF Bangladesh/2019/Sujanmap

24 September 2019

Dhalchar, Bhola, Bangladesh – Bangladesh is one of the most disaster-prone countries in the world. Over the years, climate change has increased the number of cyclones and floods to strike the densely populated country – and today, 19.4 million Bangladeshi children are exposed to those effects.

On a remote island in south-central Bangladesh, 16-year-old Mahadi is doing all he can to mitigate climate change’s consequences. He understands the ways global warming has pushed Bangladesh’s poorest to the edge, often forcing children into early marriage and exploitative labour to remedy financial loss. In Bangladesh, between 50,000 and 200,000 are displaced by river erosion every year, forcing thousands of families to lose everything, and start over in the starkest of circumstances.

“Parents stop their children from going to school because of poverty. They often marry off their daughters since they cannot afford to feed them.”

— Mahadi

Mahadi’s family always struggled with money, but his parents have never stopped providing for Mahadi’s education. Mahadi’s father is a lumberjack, and though he barely makes enough money to get by, he only asks for Mahadi’s help in the woods when he has free time between his studies.

Mahadi stands behind his seated mother and father. In the background is a thatched wall.
UNICEF Bangladesh/2019/Sujanmap
Climate change has made it even harder for many parents to send their children to school on Mahadi’s island. Regardless, Mahadi’s parents have made sure he can attend school and thrive.

Mahadi’s parents’ dedication to education has helped their son soar: now in ninth grade, Mahadi is the cabinet leader of his school and the leader of the student welfare club. As part of this role, Mahadi fights the socio-economic effects of climate change by working to end child labour, sexual abuse and child marriage.

Every week, Mahadi leads discussions with his peers about children’s rights issues. Often, he takes it upon himself to find students who have dropped out of school, visiting their families and explaining the dangers of child marriage. In Bangladesh, nearly 60 per cent of girls are married before their 18th birthday, and 22 per cent are married before their 15th. Climate change-induced poverty is only worsening these statistics for young girls, as families believe they are helping their daughters survive by providing them with a more “secure” new life.

: Munadi smiles in class, a stack of textbooks is on his desk. Behind him are rows of smiling schoolboys.
UNICEF Bangladesh/2019/Sujanmap
Beyond his achievement in the classroom, Mahadi has taken it upon himself to become a champion for other children’s rights, advocating against child marriage in his community.

Often, Mahadi says, families present false birth certificates to “legalise” the age of their daughters. Whenever he hears of this happening, Mahadi pushes the parents to complete their daughter's proper birth registration within 45 days. If nothing changes, Mahadi informs the authoritative bodies of his village, ensuring action is taken to restore the child’s access to education.

As the world continues to warm, communities like those in Dhola will be some of the worst affected. To avoid the poverty traps of climate change, Bangladesh – and the world – will need more young people like Mahadi to look out for children.

“Poverty is one of the biggest factors that put a child’s life at risk,” Mahadi said. “I wish the policy and decision-makers of Bangladesh would help reduce poverty and improve the lives of thousands of children, especially those in the coastal region of the country."

Mahadi stands holding a pink soccer ball, flanked by two boys his age on his left and three boys on his right. All are looking at the camera confidently and in the background is a cleared area, then forest.
UNICEF Bangladesh/2019/Sujanmap
While Mahadi waits for policy-makers to make structural changes for the benefit of children like him, he is showing what it means to be a change-maker in his community.