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Stopping child marriages through community mobilization

  • Published at 11:39 am December 12th, 2020
Bangladesh has one of the highest child marriage rates in the world Syed Zakir Hossain/Dhaka Tribune

A USAID program successfully delayed or stopped over 200 child marriages in villages it formed community groups

Nur Nahar, a 14-year-old child bride from Tangail, died in late October 2020 from excessive bleeding from her genitals. Being legally unfit to be married due to her age, her parents married her off to a man in his thirties following the religious rituals about 34 days prior to her death. Her bleeding started immediately after spending the first night with her husband, and he reportedly continued sexual intercourse with her, disregarding her injuries until she finally died while receiving treatment. 

Bangladesh is a conservative Muslim majority country where no citizen is provided ‘sex education’, no anti-child marriage organizations can openly discuss the danger a young bride may face on the first night of her wedding. 

Every year, thousands of underage girls, like Nur Nahar, are married off and are forced to engage in a sexual relationship even before they are physically and emotionally ready. According to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), Bangladesh has the highest number of child marriage in South Asia, and second highest in the world, with 59% of Bangladeshi girls being married before attaining the age of 18. 

Child marriage – the formal marriage or informal union of any person under the age of 18 – is a violation of human rights and the rights of the child. This practice places married girls – at risk of domestic violence, sexual abuse, rape, and denial of access to education. 

In December 2017, the Bangladesh government passed the Child Marriage Restraint Act 2017 by repealing Child Marriage Restraint Act 1929 to minimize the prevalence of child marriage. The act was welcomed for its increased focus on stronger law enforcement and stringent punishment. However, civil society opposed the special provision that allows girls below the age of 18 to be married under “special circumstances.”

Despite the laws and efforts by different government and non-governmental organizations, child marriage still prevails in Bangladesh. Many parents feel it is a necessary decision to protect their daughters from sexual advances by young boys in their village, risk of rape by a random person in the village, or strongly frowned upon acts such as having a pre-marital sexual relationship within the village or eloping. 

USAID’s SHOUHARDO III activity, implemented by CARE Bangladesh, aims to address this chronic issue holistically. Working with different tiers of the government, the activity strengthened the capacities of union-level committees, including the Union Parishad Nari Nirjaton Protirodh Committee (UP-NNPC) that manages Ending Violence Against Women (EVAW) in the communities. 

At the same time, SHOUHARDO III has formed community groups in 947 villages in Northern Bangladesh to improve the overall development goals of the Poor and Extreme Poor (PEP), as well as increasing solidarity for women. 

These groups serve as a safe space for women and girls to talk freely about their lives, including the challenges they face. Together, the union-level committees and these groups collaborate to collectively address difficulties that these groups face in any sector. The UP-NNPC ensures the list of adolescent girls with their correct age, who work with community group leaders including the parents. These initiatives build girls’ life skills and labour skills making them more prepared to pursue future economic opportunities.

SHOUHARDO formed community groups that are working strongly to fight against child marriage. Md Mostafa Mia, a community leader from one of the groups from Belkuchi in the Sirajganj district, shared several initiatives taken by the group to stop child marriage. A team of 11-group members developed and shared a list of adolescent girls aged between 7-18 years old with the Union Parishad chairman and members to remain vigilant. 

According to Sonia Sobur Akhond, Chairman of 2 Rajapur Union, “The list of adolescent girls and their ages provided by the community works as a base document for us to locate, check, and follow up on them. We can now easily locate these girls who are likely to become a child-bride without the authority’s intervention. We can also refer to this list when and if parents come to us with their daughter to register a marriage. This list has contributed significantly to stopping child marriage in my Union.”

UP-NNPC, in collaboration with SHOUHARDO III community groups, organizes awareness sessions with the adolescent girls and with their parents so they can internalize the harmful impact of child marriages. “I have seen how child marriage could destroy a family! It affects adolescent girls’ physical as well as emotional health and causes financial damage as well. The girls’ parents only realize when they see their young girls return to their parents as she went through conflicts with their husband and in-laws that sometimes lead to separation,” shared Mostafa Mia who’s solicited for collective actions to stop child marriages.

SHOUHARDO III’s holistic approach in addressing this issue meant engaging with all the other actors surrounding a woman or a girl in the society. Facilitating men as agents in bringing positive changes in women's and girls’ lives are equally necessary. The program reached them through Couple’s Dialogues and worked with them in their regular activities such as tea kiosks, farmer groups, and social events. 

Conversations evolved around social messages, including the benefits of delaying marriage, investing in daughter’s education, equal treatment of sons and daughters, freedom of movement especially to schools, sharing of family tasks so that girls get time for studying.

Through the program’s collected data, it was seen that forming these solidarity groups and empowering them has ensured a total of 215 successful delayings (and stoppings) of child marriages in the villages. Strong community mobilization is a key factor in stopping child marriage. Promising results came out of SHOUHARDO III’s continuous engagement too with its participants, as narrated in Priti’s story below:

Priti, a 17 years old girl from the Kishoreganj district, is just one of the champions who managed to stop her parents from arranging her own marriage, and ensuring that she did not fall victim to it. As a member of SHOUHARDO’s adolescent girls' group, she learned of the dangers she might be facing as a child bride. She did not succeed despite trying her best to convince her parents to delay her planned marriage in early 2019. 

She talked to her teacher who contacted the community group and later they informed the local Union Parishad member to stop her marriage. After about three weeks of negotiation, her family finally backed down and vowed not to marry her off until she turned 18. 

Priti is now studying in class 10 and makes beaded handbags during her free time, a skill learned from the training provided by the Department of Women’s Affairs. Before the Covid-19 lockdown, she was earning Tk500-600 per month selling these bags. “Women in this society will continue to face obstacles. We just need to be bold and stand up for what we want in life,” said Priti.   

It has been observed that fathers are the ones keen on marrying their daughters off, while mothers often try to stop them; perhaps they do not want their daughters to relive their own lives. From interactions with the parents of girls whose underage marriages were stopped, it was found that the biggest motivation for marrying off young daughters is to avoid paying a higher dowry that is demanded by the groom's family for older girls. 

Since fathers are the main breadwinners in rural Bangladesh, they worry about the higher dowry they may have to pay if they wait until their daughter is 18. Sulekha, a mother of teenage girls, shared, “I was also a victim of child marriage, I got married when I was only 14 years old and I suffered a lot with my in-laws, I don’t want my daughters to go through the same pain, but the reality is that we cannot pay the high dowry the grooms want for marrying older girls. They have the option to find younger, better-suited girls everywhere”

Parents often see marrying their daughter off as a ‘must-do’ task – the sooner, the better. Almost without exception, a young girl alone cannot speak up to convince those who surround her about its negative impact. The practice intensifies when the girls drop out of school. Like Priti, SHOUHARDO III has supported the development of employability skills of 4,743 girls who have dropped out of school since 2015. 

Equipping these girls with entrepreneurial skills and surrounding them with a community to support and safeguard them can be an effective way to ensure their safety and a bright future. 

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