Community gradually taking lead in curbing child marriage
Chowrapara, Rangpur, 22 July 2014: Arjina, 14, just finished class for the day, walking home from school with her classmates. She is a student of Class 9. “One day I will be a nurse. This is my dream,” Arjina declares.
A few months ago, that dream was nearly shattered. Arjina’s parents – both daily wage labourers – were constantly struggling to make ends meet. They were also continually worried if they did enough to protect their daughter from harassment from boys and men.
Then one day, a marriage proposal was given to Arjina’s father. In Rangpur district in northwestern Bangladesh where Arjina and her family lived, parents commonly arranged the marriage of their daughters during adolescence, and nearly half of all girls were married off by the age of 15.
In light of this tradition of child marriage for girls, and considering their dire financial situation and their concerns for their daughter’s safety, Arjina’s parents decided to accept the marriage proposal.
“When I heard that my parents had accepted a proposal for me to get married, I got very scared and wanted to run away. I knew that once I got married, my education will be stopped and my dreams would be lost forever”, Arjina recalls.
Curse of child marriage continues to haunt
Despite the national law prohibiting child marriage, 65 per cent of women who were 20 to 24 years of age at the time of the survey got married before the age of
18, according to the 2011 Demographic Health Survey.
Girls who get married before the age of 18 have an increased risk of complications during pregnancy and childbirth and are more likely to be exposed to violence and abuse. Child marriage negatively impacts schooling and reduces a child’s opportunities in life.
Community combats child marriage
Arjina told her mother that she did not want to get married so young. But it had no effect. She then went to the community worker, Giribala Roy, whom she knew from community dialogue sessions on child marriage.
Giribala Roy, a local NGO worker of a UNICEF partner organisation, supported by the Government of Bangladesh-UNICEF Communication for Development programme, works to change harmful behaviours and social norms in the community, such as child marriage.
Giribala alerted the local Ward Development Committee and government authorities at sub-district level, and together they visited Arjina’s parents in a bid to convince them not to marry off their daughter so early in life.
They argued that adolescent girls were physically and mentally not ready for marriage and childbirth. They also talked about the penalties for parents who marry off their children before the legal age of 18. The community skilled birth attendant discussed about the increased health risks when adolescents get pregnant.
Experiencing community pressure and hearing their arguments against child marriage, Arjina’s parents agreed to delay their daughter’s marriage until she reached the age of 18.
Multi-pronged mobilization interventions
Under the programme, Ward Development (Child Welfare) Committees with representation of religious leaders, health and education sector representatives, women and adolescent leaders have been trained on child rights and on key behaviours and social norms that impact on child wellbeing.
These committees hold community-level discussions on harmful effects of child marriage, and they initiate actions to delay marriage until girls reach the age of 18. Bangladesh Betar (national radio) broadcasts programmes through its national and regional stations and the Department of Mass Communication shows film shows to advocate child rights.
In the 21 partner unions of three upazilas (sub-districts) in Rangpur district, 126 child marriages were stopped in 2013 with assistance of the UNICEF partner NGO, up from only seven in 2012. This has been widely documented in local media, triggering intensive local discussions on harmful effects of child marriage.
Meanwhile, the Government of Bangladesh-UNICEF Education programme supports the Young Champion network in and out of school which promotes adolescents as leaders against child marriage, linked to the in-school life-skills based education.
The Government-UNICEF Child Protection programme strengthens key institutions that support adolescent empowerment and participation to prevent child marriage, dowry and other forms of abuse and exploitation. Adolescent clubs empower girls and boys with information on harmful effects of child marriage, teach life skills and provide a support network.