Afroza’s story: refusing marriage, choosing education
By Naimul Haq
NATORE, Bangladesh, January 2010: Twenty young girls clap and sing in harmony under a large tin shed as neighbours cast curious looks. The chorus becomes louder and louder as the girls sing a clear message: ‘Girls, don’t get married before you are 18’.
In Biprohalsha village in Natore district, some 200 km north-west of Dhaka, the girls are hosting one of their twice-monthly gatherings which are part of UNICEF’s adolescent empowerment project. One of the main subjects of discussion is child marriage, a phenomenon that is all too common in Bangladesh where rates of teen marriage are among the highest in the world.
The song has a particular resonance for Afroza Khatun, a 17-year-old college student who leads the group. Recently, in the face of custom and community pressure, Afroza bravely refused her marriage proposal.
The problem of early marriage
“Early in September a relative from adjacent Bujangacha village came to see my father to propose my marriage with the owner of a small shop. A day later I told my parents that I wanted to complete my studies in college,” said Afroza.
Three-quarters of girls in Bangladesh are married before age 18 and one-third are married before age 15. The prevailing belief is that as girls grow older they may go astray, making it difficult for their parents to find suitable grooms. “We wish to send a clear message to our parents and the traditional village matchmakers that it is illegal for girls to get married before the age of 18 and illegal to pay dowry,” said Nazma Khatun, a student of class nine and a member of Afroza’s adolescent group.
Every month several workers from BRAC, UNICEF’s partner in the field, hold courtyard meetings with mothers, fathers and senior members of the community. They discuss issues such as reproductive health, dowry, and the benefits of delaying a girl’s marriage and allowing her to complete her education.
Seeking support from the community
Afroza and her friends from the adolescent group asked senior members of their community to help her convince her parents to delay her marriage until she was at least 18 years old.
The first person they went to was Sharathi Biswas, programme organiser of BRAC: “I reminded Afroza’s parents about our previous meetings in which they had agreed to respect teenage girls’ rights and avoid early marriage.”
A local union council member, Md Hazrat Ali Mandol, also intervened on Afroza’s behalf. As a council member, Mandol has considerable influence in the community and he strongly supports girls waiting until they are 18 to get married.
Afroza also had help from a local religious leader, Abdur Razzak, who said: “I had organized a meeting of senior members of the community to condemn those who agree to get their daughters married before the age of 18. In this case, I think we could easily convince Afroza’s father.”
A victory for child rights
Afroza’s father Md Akram Hossain recalls how he eventually agreed to his daughter’s request: “Refusing the proposal was a big challenge for me. Traditionally, a marriage proposal for a growing girl is welcomed, because it is not easy to find well-off grooms. I knew I would face criticism but I decided to turn down the proposal keeping in mind my daughter’s desire for higher education”.
UNICEF, in partnership with BRAC, has been implementing the adolescent empowerment project across Bangladesh since 2001. The programme reaches almost 100,000 adolescents and aims to build confidence and knowledge, particularly among girls, so that they can actively participate in decisions that affect their lives.
Afroza’s marriage could be prevented only because her community was well aware of the laws and rights of adolescent girls. As Afroza walks along the bank of a small pond next to her mud house, she talks about her future plans: “I know many proposals will come along, but as long as I have the support of the community and my parents, I am not thinking about marriage for the time being. I wish to do well in my studies and one day I see myself as a teacher”.