Adolescent clubs give unbridled support
2 March, 2011, Narsingdi, Bangladesh: Playing a board game with a group of friends, Shahida Ahkter looks like any other teenage girl. She spends most of her time at her local high school in the eastern Bangladeshi Upazilla of Shirpur in Narsingdi and when she’s not studying, she’s helping her mother about the house or passing the afternoons with friends.
“I went to my sisters’ house with my daughter and a lady came over and asked for my daughter’s hand for her son,” says Shahida’s mother Amina Begum. As she sits on the dirt floor of her small home, Amina explains that she wanted what she believed was best for her family who are poor and rely on Amina’s eldest son, who works abroad in Saudi Arabia, to send money back to his mother and sister. “My sister told me it would be a good idea for my daughter to marry this boy”, explains Amina “Because the boy comes from a good family.”
Child marriage is common in Bangladesh. Although the legal age for marriage is 18, one third of girls are married before the age of 15. Luckily Shahida is not one of them, thanks – in part- to UNICEF’s Adolescent Empowerment project, which is run by UNICEF’s partner organisations and funded by the European Union.
The project aims to ensure more adolescent participation in social decision making. It currently runs more than 3,000 adolescent centres or Kishori Clubs across the country, providing a venue for around 100k,000 adolescent girls and boys to gather and discuss the issues that matter to them such as early marriage, human rights, dowry, birth registration, transmission of diseases like HIV/AIDS, reproductive health, and drug abuse.
Through Kishori Clubs, the project has been able to strengthen community networks and it was through these networks that Shahida was able to fight against becoming a child bride and, potentially, a child mother.
Shahida’s friends, 16-year-old Afroja and 15-year-old Shilpi, were the first people Shahida told and the two tried in vain to convince Shahida’s mother that marrying her daughter off at such as young age was a bad idea and against the law.
The girls then went to the one place they felt they could turn to: their local Kishori club, where they had been taught about the harmful physical and emotional effects of early marriage (and subsequent early child birth.)
The girls confided in the club’s program coordinator, 31-year-old Naima Yasmin, who then organised a meeting with Shahida’s mother and a number of prominent village leaders, including a high-ranking local councillor. “The aim of the meeting was to show Shahida’s mother that the whole village - everyone from school students to community groups to council officials - was against the idea of a child marriage,” says Naima.
“I told Shahida’s mother that if she went ahead with her decision her daughter’s education would be compromised,” Naima says. “I told her that Shahida won’t get the chance to reach her full potential; that her family life will suffer and she will face higher health risks during pregnancy.” Finally, having succumbed to community pressure, Shahida’s mother called off the marriage.
For Shahida, it was a decision that would change her life and one she says was only possible because of the strong support network offered by her Kishori club.