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Adolescent girls on a mission

For hundreds of thousands of slum dwellers in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, overflowing sewers, rotting garbage and undernourished children are the backdrop of daily life.

But in Rupnagor, the slum where 17-year-old Doly Akter lives, things are quite different. Here, children laugh and play in the clean alleyways. Girls in brightly coloured salwar kameez hurry past on their way to school or to visit friends. The air is saturated not with the putrid smell of open sewers but with the pleasing aromas of turmeric and garlic from the hundreds of cooking pots where lunch is being prepared. There is no garbage in sight, despite the overcrowded conditions which are home to the 2,000 families of the Rupnagor slum.

Things began to change in 2004, when Doly and other adolescent girls in the area formed a club as part of a project on Environmental Sanitation, Hygiene and Water Supply in Urban Slums and Fringes, which was launched in 2000 and is supported by UNICEF and its partners.

Through the project, adolescent girls like those in Doly’s club go door-to-door to monitor the hygiene habits of at least 25 households in their neighbourhood. The girls are trained to understand the links between better hygiene and better health, so they can advise their neighbours about why they should improve their hygiene habits.

“The lanes are very narrow in this slum, and yet we are quite comfortable here. But in the past, our life was not like it is today,” says Doly. “As recently as two and a half years ago, there was rubbish and sickness everywhere.”

The monitoring has led to great improvements in the hygiene and health of their families and neighbours. Even with this success, these passionate young girls refuse to let their work stop. They are using their meetings and new-found confidence to address other issues that affect them.

Empowering girls

Doly and the other girls have successfully stopped several child marriages in their area by banding together and lobbying the parents. If this fails, they ask the staff at the local Urban Development Centre to intervene. Although nearly two thirds of young women in Bangladesh are married before they turn 18, in Doly’s slum, child marriages are now rare.

The girls are also fighting the Bangladeshi cultural practice of dowry, where the family of the bride must pay the groom and his family. Though now illegal, dowry demands can result in violence against the bride. In 2004, 165 women in Bangladesh were killed and 77 had acid thrown on them over dowry demands. “If we hadn’t addressed these problems, those girls, who are now working with us, wouldn’t have had these opportunities,” Doly says. “Now they are able to go to school, continue their education and work with us. This is a plus point for us.”

The members of Doly’s group also look out for each other by paying 1 taka (US 1 cent) a week, or whatever they can afford, to help pay for other girls’ school costs. Acquiring an education is an enormous feat for the slum girls, whose parents typically push them to marry or start work as soon as they can.

For Doly, who recently completed high school and is likely to attend university with the help of a local non-governmental organization, it is more a matter of solidarity. “If some of us, 10 to 12 girls, get together, then we become very powerful,” Doly says. “If we unite, then I think we can solve any problem we will face.”

Doly says the girls in her area are twice as powerful as their mothers were. “My mother had no rights in any decision-making, but I have some,” Doly says.

When she was 17, Doly’s mother, Parven Begum, was already married and looking after baby Doly. She didn’t dare leave the house without permission from her husband or her in-laws. In contrast, Doly visits – and advises – her neighbours daily, can continue studying and frequently meets her friends. When Doly walks through the slum’s alleyways, she is constantly stopped by her neighbours – elders, respected men, housewives and young people – calling out for a chat. All are respectful and listen to what the 17-year-old girl has to say.

“We are more aware of our rights and our needs than our mothers ever were,” Doly says. “Girls like me are getting at least twice as many opportunities as our mothers had. I hope that the future generation of Bangladeshi girls will at least get that much again.”

Cooperation among women and adolescents, like Doly and her friends, is one of the most effective avenues for women’s empowerment in the community and in the household, and can have long-lasting benefits for women. Read more about how to empower women in the household.