DHAKA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Four years ago, when her family’s home in central Bangladesh was washed away by floods, Pakhi and her family migrated to Dhaka to look for work.
But with many families arriving in an already overcrowded city, with jobs hard to find, and with the family struggling to eat, the teenager eventually took one of the few jobs available.
“I was around 14 years old when I joined the sex industry,” said Pakhi, now 18. “I did it only for the money. I had to buy food. I had to survive.”
Today she is the main provider for her family, bringing in between $120 and $180 a month, she said, or occasionally as much as $240.
But “there’s a limit to what my body can manage,” she said.
The work hasn’t brought the family a better life, however. Pakhi – who asked that her real name not be used – still lives with her parents and younger siblings in one cramped room, and most of her income goes to pay the rent and for her siblings’ education.
She blames their plight on the changing weather that claimed their home.
“The flood took everything away from us by destroying our house. We are in this situation because of the flood,” she said, before turning silent.
As it brings stronger floods, storms, droughts and heat waves, climate change is making life harder for many of the world’s poorest – including driving some women and girls into prostitution.
Every year, more than 20 million people, on average, are forced to leave their homes and migrate elsewhere, either temporarily or permanently, to escape the ravages of an ever- more-extreme climate, according to a 2018 report by the Geneva-based Internal Displacement Monitoring Center.
Often it is women and girls who suffer most from such displacement, said Alexandra Bilak, the director of the center.
Linnea Engström, a Swedish member of the European Parliament, said displacement magnifies pressures women already face.
“Women and girls are disproportionally affected by climate displacement because of already existing inequalities in society,” she said in an interview in Stockholm.
“The poorest people tend to be very vulnerable and that’s usually women and girls,” she said.
Much of the displacement associated with global warming so far is happening in poor countries, and “a large proportion of the migrants that come from rural areas to Dhaka come because of climatic reasons,” said Saleemul Huq, director of the Dhaka-based International Center for Climate Change and Development.
“Poor countries are facing a greater problem than richer countries, both because they happen to be living in areas that are more vulnerable and also because they are poorer and have less ability to deal with the impacts of climate change,” he said.
In Bangladesh, considered one of the countries most vulnerable to climate change impacts, hundreds of thousands of people a year are forced to leave their rural communities and migrate to urban slums as a result of sea level rise, violent storms, erosion and floods, Bilak said.
“Bangladesh is a country that has high exposure to natural hazards (and) densely populated areas that are already at risk of being affected by these hazards,” she said.
As one of the poorest countries in Asia it “doesn’t have the capacity to cope”, Bilak said.
Displacement affects both people in rural areas and in the cities they migrate to, she said.
In 2017, over 900,000 people in Bangladesh were displaced by disasters, according to Internal Displacement Monitoring Center figures, Bilak said.
Nearly half of those were driven out by torrential rains, and “it was the poorest communities in the city of Dhaka that were disproportionally affected”.
Steve Trent, director of the London-based Environmental Justice Foundation, said that as women and girls are pushed into urban slums and struggle to make a living there, some “will be forced into sex work and prostitution because they have no alternative”.
“That will be the only way in which they can feed themselves and their children,” he said, calling the situation, “a critical illustration of the human face of climate change”.
Another migrant forced into prostitution in Dhaka is Meera, 28, who became a sex worker more than a decade ago after tropical cyclone Sidr.
The storm, which affected more than a million households in Bangladesh, destroyed her house in Madaripur District.
She migrated to Dhaka and started working at a garment factory to support herself and her daughter. But she was repeatedly raped by the managers and eventually decided instead to charge individuals to engage in sexual acts with her.
She was 16 years old when she began the work, said Meera, who also asked that her real name not be used.
With climate change expected to bring more extreme weather, accelerating sea level rise and the risk of more migration, according to a report released last week by leading climate scientists, more needs to be done now to recognize the risks to women and girls, and move to reduce them, experts said.
“We have estimates from the United Nations saying that by the year 2050 we might have 200 million people displaced by climate change,” Engström said. “We really need to act now.”