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Lost in transition – Bangladesh’s invisible girls

© UNICEF/2011/Saikat Mojumder
Left to Right: Naheed M Ahmed, Iqbal Mahmud, Dr. Shirin Sharmin Chaudhury, Carel de Rooy, and Michel Saint-lot officially unveil the report “A Perspective of Gender Equality of Bangladesh: From young girl to adolescent" on 25 October 2011.

By Vanessa Curney

Dhaka, Bangladesh, 28 October 2011: "About few months ago, I visited a health clinic at Barisal, 60 per cent of the women in one of the wards were there because someone who ought to have been protecting them – a father or a husband perhaps – had beaten them to such an extent that they required medical attention.”

Carel de Rooy, Representative for UNICEF Bangladesh, recounted this experience at the end of the launch on Oct 25 of the agency’s new report: From young girl to adolescent: what is lost in transition? The study argues that girls are discriminated against during the transition period between puberty and legal adulthood (10-19 years), and this is having a detrimental effect on their personal, social and economic well-being.

His story reinforces the threat awaiting many young girls as they grow up in Bangladesh. They may nurture hopes about their future lives. But, during those bridge years between childhood and adulthood a time of self-discovery and personal development becomes, for too many, a period marked by fear, bullying and coercion that leads to broken dreams and to a very negative place.

But the women mentioned by Carel de Rooy can at least speak of their horrors. From young girl to adolescent: what is lost in transition?report claims there are five million adolescent girls in Bangladesh who are missing – hidden, invisible, dead or alive, we do not know. The 2009 Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey (MICS) on which the report is based, reveals that there are a lower number of girls in the 15-19 age group (7.1%) compared to 20-24 year olds (10.4%) and 10 to 14 year olds (12.9%).

© UNICEF/2011/Saikat Mojumder
Carel de Rooy, Representative, UNICEF Bangladesh, answers questions from the audience during the launching ceremony of the report “A Perspective of Gender Equality of Bangladesh: From young girl to adolescent" on 25 October 2011.

“Perhaps these working girls are hidden somewhere in the economy or the population” Naheed Ahmed (UN Women) reflected in her address to delegates. “They have no right to participation…even to accessing justice. Of course, not being counted also means no access health facilities or employment rights.”

Dr. Shirin Sharmin Chaudhury, State Minister for Women and Children agreed that “social and cultural contexts can play a major role. For example, is there a general notion that girls must be married off at a certain age? That it’s more important to educate boys than girls?”

In addition, she noted that the 1929 Child Marriage Restraint Act might need further work. “The law has to be there and the legal framework must be in place” she asserted. “But the reasons underpinning them must also be addressed.”

The gender ratio for under-ones and under-fives is also skewed in favour of boys, whilst 13 out of the 64 districts in Bangladesh have ‘biologically impossible ratios.’ UNICEF’s report cannot corroborate evidence of systemic acts of ‘female foeticide’ but the figures have worrying implications for the nation’s future: “Bangladesh is at a threshold in terms of its demographics” said Carel de Rooy. “If we don’t pay attention, we could be moving towards a society with a serious gender imbalance.”

From young girl to adolescent: what is lost in transition? does not claim to have all the answers to these issues: discrimination against 10-19 year old girls; how to locate Bangladesh’s ‘how to locate these unaccounted for, invisible girls’. But UNICEF hopes this report will not only generate serious debate and more intensive research, but, most importantly, action and long-term resolution too.



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