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Adolescent Cyclone Survivor Turns into Social Change Agent

© UNICEF/BANA2013-00997/Shafiqul Alam Kiron
(Left to right) Deepti Mondol, 16, Anjana Mondol, 17 and Joyasree Rai,18 share a conversation about issues like prevention of child marriage in Kalibari Village, Dacope Upazilla. They are all beneficiaries of stipends provided by UNICEF.

By Syeda Rad Rahman

Dacope, Khulna, 28 August, 2013: Deepti Mondol (real name not revealed to protect privacy) has led anything but a sheltered life. At the age of 12, Deepti spent the better part of several hours perched precariously on a tree branch while the rain beat down on her back.

“It felt like painful rocks were pelting down on my back,” says Deepti, and her pretty smile fades as she recalls hurricane Aila, which swept away her family house into the river Dhhaki.

Aila, a tropical hurricane, caused mass devastation to the southwestern boundaries of the Sunderbans, in Dacope upazila (sub-district) of Bangladesh in 2009.  

There are 14 villages that are scattered around the banks of Dacope upazila, villages which are separated by muddy rivers and river banks that are eerily devoid of trees, or for that matter, even grass.

Most of the villages have no electricity, and when arriving in a village in Dacope, wading through 12 inches of mud is a daily reality, making the wearing of shoes during monsoon months impossible.

The fact that Deepti found a tree to climb and hold on to, and hence save herself in heavily deforested Dacope is already miraculous. However,  her family’s troubles were only just beginning. Her one maternal uncle, Nayan, died during the storm.

To add to this, the Dhhaki river’s banks eroded extensively, ensuring the family home could never be fully recovered in the state that it was before. Where the family house once lay, there was now a widened and raging river that refused to retreat.

Deepti and her family are one of thousands who spent 17 months living in makeshift shacks made with corrugated tin and threadbare plastic wrapping on the river’s edge. The possibility of schooling was impossible, and in order to reduce the costs of supporting her family, Deepti’s marriage was arranged at the age of 13, to a man 20 years her senior, and someone she had never met before but had heard was a sloth.

When one meets Deepti today, she laughs without hesitation while she describes the shifts her life has undergone since Aila, finding humour in her memories of painstakingly assembling scraps of paper from a completely destroyed story book from her childhood, in order to recall school lessons.

Fighting Negative Social Norms

Post-Aila relief efforts have included the establishment of 18 Child Friendly Spaces  (hencefort CFSs) in Dacope. Local caregivers and community level facilitators work with adolescents to provide them with the essential life skills education to become change agents in their own localities.

© UNICEF/BANA2013-00986/Shafiqul Alam Kiron
A man makes his way across a path made from mud during heavy rainfall in Kalibari village, a remote area in Dacope Upazilla. The area has been heavily affected by Cyclone Aila.

Child Friendly Spaces (CFSs) have become an essential entry point into rural communities, allowing for life skills-based education to be communicated in order to combat detrimental social norms.

Through fostering positive behavioural patterns and introducing the concept of negotiating and decision making to an intergenerational audience, Deepti and her peers have orchestrated a reduction in their vulnerability to child marriage, child labour, and corporal punishment.

Deepti’s mother, Malati, says, “I suffered terribly after being married off at a young age and giving birth at 14, but when it was my daughter’s turn, I initially had no one backing me up when I wanted to stop Deepti from being married off. Sometimes, I think that even Aila was a blessing because after Aila, people from outside the community came and assessed our problems and addressed the issue of child marriage. It’s really important for me that I had this support, because it was easier to say no, because being married young leads to several problems in a girl’s life.”

In Bangladesh, approximately 68 per cent of women aged between 18 and 45 are married before 18, and in rural areas such as Dacope, these numbers are even higher. There are 28 million adolescents in Bangladesh. Of this high number, 13.7 million are girls and 14.3 million are boys.

Rural child marriage is pegged at an astonishing 33 per cent, but what makes the figures much more difficult to manage is the fact that lying about a child’s age on paper is easy and thus ensuring that on paper that there is no child marriage in any of the villages in Khulna.

“When I was younger, I used to be so happy when one of my friends was getting married. I would become excited that we would be able to dance and eat good food during the wedding. Never once did I question the logic of an eight year old girl being married off. Now, after learning about the harmful mental and physical strains on a girl if they are married too young, I am really glad that I have the training not just to say no to these harmful practices, but our group of Kishor-Kishori (adolescent) leaders have already stopped six child marriages this year alone,” says Deepti.

Mobilizing Socially Committed Adolescents 

The Kishori Abhijan or the Adolescent Empowerment project aims to enable adolescents, especially but not exclusively girls, to participate meaningfully in decisions that affect their lives.

It also helps them to become role models for the community and other adolescents. The project works to create and sustain a supportive environment for adolescent girls’ development at a household and community level.

The underlying principles of the project are to build self-esteem, confidence, knowledge and skills. These qualities increase an adolescent’s bargaining power within and outside the family and community, allowing them to intercept in situations where they would previously not have had the capacity, or the capability to speak out about issues that were harmful to them.

Through a peer-to-peer participatory education approach, Deepti and her friends Archana and Sri Devi, have learnt about essential life skills from attending lectures at the CFS in Kalibari. They have also received education to sharpen their critical thinking, negotiation and decision making skills. They have taken on leadership roles in the community through the conversational approach.

Equipped with Essential Information

Today, Deepti has been able to relay information regarding the social issues surrounding puberty, reproductive health, birth registration, dowry, HIV/AIDS, acid attacks, and divorce issues with confidence to her family and community members.

“I am not going to get married till I am 18,” she announces proudly. “I used to wonder how I would even study if my school is under water, but now, I have learnt so many lessons that I am eager to teach my friends and community members about how we can all help ourselves address the problems of poverty, because it affects us all, regardless of age,” she says with an air of authority.

 

 

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