Teen Activists In Bangladesh Working To Prevent Child Marriage Through An Org. Funded By UNICEF

On February 27 of this year, the Bangladesh parliament approved the passage of a new law which shocked many human rights organizations an activists who are working to end the heinous practice of child marriage. Despite it being illegal in the country since 1929, the new law allows girls under age 18 to marry under “special circumstances,” with permission from their parents and a court. There is no minimum age for these marriages.

The law does not specify what those special circumstances are, making this a huge step back for Bangladesh and angering many who care about ending this practice. According to Human Rights Watch, “Bangladesh…has the highest rate of child marriage in Asia, and one of the highest rates in the world, with 52 percent of girls married before age 18, and 18 percent married before age 15. Under the previous law, the legal age of marriage was 18 for women and 21 for men, with no exceptions.”

This kind of practice is so deeply ingrained into the culture due to factors such as poverty and sexism, that a law alone cannot fundamentally change attitudes toward the value of young girls’ lives.

One of every 10 girls in the developing world is married before she turns 18, but in Bangladesh, the figure is over six in 10, according to Unicef. And, while the rate has gone down over the last 15 years, the numbers are still staggering,” writes Syambra Moitozo for Broadly.

What will make a difference, especially for  the children who are at risk today?

One local organization is showing how even the most unlikely people can be powerful advocates against the continuation of child marriage. Vice’s Broadly outlet featured the story of a 17 year-old boy names Dipko who lives in a village outside Sylhet. He was spotted by a social worker one day who invited him to be part on an adolescent club that meets once a week.  The club funded is by UNICEF and focuses on literacy and health, one of 6000 in Bangladesh tackling these particular issues.

Dipko has also been on a mission to educate families in his community to stop forcing their young daughters to get married. According to Broadly, he has so far managed to successfully stop 13 girls from being married off at a young age. But he is up against some major economic and gender barriers. High poverty rates mean families view girls as financial burdens, and view marriage as a solution.

The dominant attitude viewing them as less than equal to boys ensures the cycle of inequality. Early marriage means many of the girls do not get to finish even their elementary school years, which means they don’t have the chance to develop any job skills, and their ability to become financially independent in the future is greatly diminished. Many girls are forced to marry men much older than they are, and abuse is very common in these situations.

Health problems also come part and parcel of child marriage. According to the advocacy organization Girls Not Brides, high rates of infant mortality, maternal mortality and complications arising from childbirth are common in girls who are married at a young age.

After Dipko learned about the inherent problems related to child marriage, he immediately wanted to make a change.

“We learned we have rights and how it’s not only bad for girls because they don’t go to school, but can hurt their health if they have babies before their bodies are really ready. Once I understood how bad it was, I felt like I had to do something,” he said.

He does get pushback from parents who don’t like the teen interfering in their private family decisions, and he has seen threats made against him. But he will not stop working for the greater cause.

“Lots of parents tell me to mind my own business, that it is their child and their choice. In response, sometimes I threaten to bring the police. That doesn’t always go over well. Now my friends come, too. We travel in a group. I think it works better,” he said.

It’s not just young men who are joining Dipko in his mission, but the girls in his community also. Broadly tells the story of one young woman, 17 year-old Laxmi, who avoided her own child marriage at the age of 15 by having the knowledge to tell her parents why it was wrong.

“I walked in and told him no, that I wasn’t ready, that my body wasn’t developed, and besides it is against the law. That he could go to jail,” she said.

Her parents were surprised by her boldness, as well as the fact she had any knowledge about why it was wrong.

“He said that they won’t be so poor anymore if they married me off, that it was the right thing for me to do for the family—especially because my condition,” she added.

Laxmi has a physical disability which makes walking painful. She ended up making a deal with her parents that she would forego her schooling (as she could not walk the distance to get there and her parents could not afford transportation) and instead she would help her mother around the house with domestic duties and earn money as well.

“My mother and I make saris together now, and the money I make helps keep my siblings in school,” she said.

Because of her ability to do simple math, she proved to her father that the family would benefit more financially from her staying home and working, than they would marrying her off and receiving a dowry payment, another common cultural tradition which is a huge factor in parents’ decision to force girls into early marriage.

Laxmi says she does want to get married, but at a time in the future when she is ready and with a person she chooses. This is the type of freedom and agency all young girls in Bangladesh, and in other at-risk areas, should be able to have. But there is still a long way to go.

With a lack of police enforcement of the ban on child marriage, and punishment as laughable as a month in jail and fine of 1000 takas (equal to $10 USD), not every girl is as lucky as Laxmi, and rarely do they get to voice their opinions and desires so boldly.

Engaging the youth to be armed with information, the way young Dipko is doing with his friends through the adolescent club, is going to make huge differences in the lives of especially young women in Bangladesh.

 

 

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