Collectively combating child marriage
By Kamrul Hasan Khan
Sunamganj, Bangladesh, 20 January 2014: Nearly a year ago 12-year-old Kalpona Akter Jhuma threatened to commit suicide if her parents did not backtrack from arranging her marriage with a groom more than twice her age.
“I told my parents I would not get married now as I am too young. I would not be able to continue my study if I get married,” Kalpona, now 13, says sitting at the doorstep of their mud-built house at Sreenathpur village in the northeastern district of Sunamganj, as she recalled her efforts to dissuade her parents.
“I had threatened to commit suicide if they tried to marry me off. I tried to make my point saying, girls’ education is free, so my parents do not have to pay any money for my study; plus I would get stipend,” recalls Kalpona, who was then a grade five student at nearby primary school.
But all her efforts to convince her poor father, who is a farm labourer and a part-time cook at village festivals, and her mother, who was then awaiting visa to migrate to Oman to work as a domestic help, went in vain.
The guardians of the 26-year-old groom liked Kalpona so much that they did not ask for any dowry, which, her parents considered, happened because they were very lucky, and the wedding day was settled without her consent, which is still a common practice in Bangladesh.
Common plight of girls
Child marriage is a violation of human rights and represents one of the most prevalent forms of sexual abuse and exploitation of girls. This damaging practice is seen as an obstacle to nearly every Millennium Development Goal such as eradicating poverty and hunger, achieving universal primary education, reducing child and maternal mortalities.
In Bangladesh, a country of 154 million, where one-third of the population lives below poverty line, child marriage is a common plight for girls. The legal age for marriage here is 18 for girls, and 21 for boys. But the law is flouted everywhere, especially in rural areas, where more people are illiterate and unaware of negative impacts of this harmful social norm.
According to Bangladesh Demographic and Health Survey data (2011), a staggering 65 per cent of adolescent girls get married before they reach 18, and an estimated 60 per cent of them become mothers by the age of 19.
Early pregnancy and childbirth often lead to health complications. An estimated 50 per cent of adolescent girls are undernourished and suffer from anemia. Most are not properly educated about reproductive health and birth control.
The father, Shahbaz Mia, 34, who was planning to marry off her daughter even before she could finish her primary education, says that he wanted the marriage to take place because he thought Kalpona had grown up enough to start her conjugal life.
Both of her parents believed girls should get married as soon as they reach puberty. Her mother also wanted to arrange her wedding by herself before she flew to Oman.
"As a parent, it is my duty to arrange my daughter's wedding in time. I thought a grown up girl is a burden to parents, but I had no idea of the bad impacts of early marriage," Shahbaz admits.
"Kalpona told me that I did not have to spend a single taka for her education purpose, she would even beg to manage her own expenses, if necessary. But she implored me not to go ahead with the wedding.
"But I did not want to pay heed to her appeal as we thought such a good groom is rare nowadays," he says, adding they went ahead with the proposal.
Engaging communities for changes
Several days before the wedding, a member of a voluntary support group in the village under a UNICEF-supported project 'Engaging Communities for Social and Behavioural Change' came to know about the upcoming child marriage and launched a coordinated campaign in a bid to convince the parents to stop the wedding.
The project is being implemented by a national NGO – Friends in Village Development Bangladesh in partnership with the government. These interventions are implemented through Communication for Development tools namely courtyards sessions, interactive theatre shows, household visits, adolescent clubs, issue-based discussions and community support groups.
The project involves parents, community leaders and adolescents to disseminate knowledge in their community so that people are aware of harmful social practices such as child marriage.
The initiative aims to increase knowledge and practice of key child survival and development behaviours in three sub-districts in Sunamganj. Regular meetings are arranged for mothers, fathers, adolescents and for community leaders such as local government leaders and imams of local mosques.
Rashid Ahmed, a member of the Ward Development Committee, a support group under the initiative, began to communicate with other support group members and finally Kalpona's parents agreed to stop the wedding at the eleventh hour.
"I knew child marriage is a harmful practice, because I regularly attend issue-based meetings arranged by the support groups. So, I did not hesitate to act fast," Rashid says.
Syeedul Hoque Milky, Communication for Development Officer at UNICEF zonal office in Sylhet, says that success in Kalpona's case meant an achievement for all involved in the process and proved the active participation of the community people, a key goal of the project.
"It was the people of Kalpona's own community, who stopped a damaging thing from happening, which would have killed a budding dream of an adolescent," said he adds.
"Now Kalpona has renewed dreams, she has gone back to school and see her exam results -- a respectable grade in her grade-five exams given all these hurdles she had to go through," he further informs.
Kalpona's story is the first of its kind in the remote rural South Sunamganj sub-district since the beginning of the project over a year ago, but not the only one with the stoppage of more than 50 attempts of child marriage there during the period.
Her father, Shahbaz, who was successfully convinced into canceling the marriage by the community people, is determined to turn down any future marriage proposal until she is at least 18. He is happy to see her daughter around and to be able to send her back to school again.
For Kalpona, she plans to continue her study as long as she could do it for free because her father is poor. As she was informed that the government provides every girl student with stipend to support their study cost up to bachelor's degree level, she smiles shyly and says she would do that.
"Once I finish study, I will take up a job to support my parents and my younger siblings. I will not marry before that. I do not think there will be a problem to manage a good job if I get fair grades all through," a confident Kalpona says narrating her future plan.