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Empowering girls by challenging the tradition of child marriage

UNICEF Image: Bangladesh child marriage
© UNICEF/2006/Nettleton
Mosamad Mounjera Khatun sitting with her mother. Mosamad says she will not be married until she is at least 18-years old.

By Steve Nettleton

CHAPAI NAWABGANJ, Bangladesh, 31 August 2006 – Less than a year ago, Mosamad Mounjera Khatun watched as her future was decided without her consent. Her parents had arranged for her to be married, though she was only 14-years old. Like most young brides, she would have been forced to drop out of school and work in her in-laws’ household.

“I wore a sullen face,” said Mosamad. “My friends asked me why I looked so unhappy. I told them that I want to get on with my studies but my parents want me to get married. But I do not want to get married now.”

Child marriage is a common plight in Bangladesh. The legal age for marriage is 18 for girls, and 21 for boys. However, about half of all girls are married by the age of 15, and 60 per cent 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 anaemia. Most are not properly educated about reproductive health and contraception, and are often vulnerable to dowry-related violence, kidnappings and rape.

A UNICEF-supported program is working to give these girls a say in their own future.

An adolescent’s journey

The Kishori Abhijan project aims to empower teenagers, particularly girls, to participate in decisions about their lives and become role models for others. Kishori Abhijan, which means “adolescent’s journey” in Bangla, works to create a supportive environment for girls in both their own households and within the community. 

The project focuses on providing leadership skills and life skills for unmarried girls on issues such as child marriage, reproductive health and HIV/AIDS. It also offers technical training for livelihoods such as garment production or photography, as well as advice on how to start a business.

UNICEF Image: Bangladesh child marriage
© UNICEF/2006/Nettleton
Mosamad Mounjera Khatun with Mosamad Rina Akhter and another friend from the Kishori Abhijan project. Thanks to their intervention, she is no longer arranged to be married at age 14.

It is hoped that girls will gain the self-esteem and confidence to take control of their lives.

“We feel that if the adolescent boys and girls can take care of themselves, then that is a step forward, at least for them,” said Rosy Parvin, a unit organizer for the Kishori Abhijan project in Chapai Nawabganj, near the western Bangladeshi city of Rajshahi. “In the past, a village girl did not have any right to talk about herself. Today, she can talk with her parents and also negotiate with them. She can say if they are doing something wrong.”

A better future for the whole family

With help from her friends in the project, Mosamad broke off her pending marriage. Peer counsellor Mosamad Rina Akhter and other members appealed to the girl’s parents to cancel the wedding.

At first, the parents resisted. They believed if they waited, it would be difficult to arrange a marriage for her.

“But we told them that if their daughter studies and becomes educated, then she would find a job for herself,” said Ms. Akhter. “That way her future would be better, and at the same time, your future would be better too.”

Thanks to that intervention, Mosamad remains single, and in school. She says she will decide her own career and will wait to get married, at a time of her own choosing.

Kishori Abhijan’s Rosy Parvin said it is one success story which can lead to many more.
“If I can stop the system of dowry or early marriage, then those girls will be automatically empowered,” said Ms. Parvin. “Girls will know that no one can force them into marriage before they turn 18.”




25 August 2006:
UNICEF correspondent Steve Nettleton reports on a new project  encouraging young girls in Bangladesh to educate themselves before getting married.
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