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Adolescent clubs give unbridled support

© UNICEF/2010/Ahsan Khan
Shahida Ahkter,15, in Jungalia village of Shibpur upazila in Narsingdi District, on 19 December 2010. With the help of her Kishori club she was able fight against being married off at the age of 14.
By Jeannette Francis

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.
Shahida’s life is relatively carefree but it was not always the case and had things not turned out the way they did Shahida could now be a child bride. One year ago, at age 14, Shahida received a marriage proposal.

“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. 

© UNICEF/2010/Ahsan Khan
Shahida Ahkter, 15 surrounded by friends at the Jungalia Kishori Club in Narsingdi, Dhaka on 19 December 2010
“I was really upset when I found out about the marriage proposal,” says Shahida. “My friends from the Kishori club came over to me and asked me what was wrong and I told them that my mother had arranged a marriage for me and that’s why it was feeling really down.”

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.
Shahida’s story is not unique. Across Bangladesh young people are becoming more knowledgeable on the issues that affect their lives. In a recent UNICEF study of Kishori clubs, all of the young people surveyed had spoken about a key issue to their parents and/or community leaders – up from 70 percent just two years ago.

For Shahida her Kishori Club has been a lifeline and as she rolls the dice of her board game she appears blissfully unaware of just how significant her resistance to the ingrained social practice of child marriage has been.

The Kishori Abhijan Project is funded by the European Union



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