While experts have been urging speedy improvement of Bangladesh's worrying child marriage rate, some civil society groups have shown the path to resolving the issue. The groups have volunteered to defend young girls' rights in four districts of the country's Rajshahi division. Even during the coronavirus pandemic, the groups' strategies have restrained the illegal practice by building a wider network, involving government officials, and using supportive laws.
The groups have been pioneered by people like Moriam Begum, 36, one of the civil society group members from Sapahar Upazila in Naogaon district. From a simple homemaker, she rose as an Upazila-level leader stopping at least 20 cases of child marriage and dealing with several incidents of domestic violence since 2018. "We've changed the situation in our locality and areas surrounding us," she says. "Child marriage was a weekly affair three years ago. It has now become a phenomenon that occurs after more than a month or so," she adds.
"The fate of the girls would upset me, but at the time, I didn't have any idea about the laws and the ways to prevent these incidents," shares Moriam. After learning about the laws, specifically the Child Marriage Restraint Act of 2017 and the Domestic Violence Act of 2010 that protect the rights of girls and women, she faced another obstacle – the society.
"Stopping a child marriage is not an easy task. You can't do it alone," she says. The job is especially difficult in a country where the majority of the underprivileged population believes girls become ready for marriage as soon as they begin menstruating. Others even consider girls to be burdens on the family. "I faced a lot of threats from villagers who opposed our activities," she adds.
But Moriam had a strategy – to unite more people willing to end child marriage and advance through effective discussions. She widened her network with other conscious people in her union and beyond. They established the network's connections with local government leaders, law enforcers, administrative officials and national level development workers. Whenever the group members came to know of a child marriage case, they counselled the involved families; when counselling failed, they called the national call centre or sought interventions of law enforcers. They learnt about different social safety net opportunities using the Right to Information Act of 2009 and arranged allowances for families to help them support their girls.
Moriam and her group members were able to achieve all of this after coming across a human rights development project of NETZ. NETZ, a German-Bangladeshi development organisation, was implementing a project titled "Strengthened Civil Society Protects and Promotes Women's Rights." Financially assisted by the European Union and locally partnered with DASCOH and WE CAN, NETZ implemented the project in 32 unions of eight Upazila in the four districts of Naogaon, Chapainawabganj, Pabna and Sirajganj. They trained at least 4168 civil society members in 172 groups, provided self-defence training to 660 students in 32 schools and educated 13,200 students on women's rights, preventing violence against women and democratic practices. Allied, these groups have successfully stopped at least 300 child marriages and addressed 1500 cases of gender-based violence. The CSO members facilitated access to social safety net services for 13762 people from the local government, institutes and public authorities during the project period between January 2018 and December 2020.
The project has ended, but the activities of the volunteers are still going strong. Amina Khatun, the Upazila women affairs officer in Sapahar Upazila, appreciates the activities of the groups. "I have attended two of their programmes in the last six months. I was amazed by their enthusiasm. They love their job, and that's why they are successful in making people understand that child marriage is a crime," she says.
"Although it was a small-scale project, its impact is massive," says Akramul Haque, Chief Executive Officer of DASCOH, who implemented the NETZ project in Naogaon and Chapainawabganj districts. The civil society members identified that most child marriages used to occur in collusion with the local marriage registrars and Notary Public. The civil society groups drew the attention of district-level officials and assisted in taking actions against child marriage across the district," mentions Haque.
Moriam Begum continues to share stories about her groups' activities. At the end of 2020, she came to know about a girl in Sironti village who became pregnant at the age of 12, within two months of her marriage. Moriam and her group reached out to help her. "We discovered she was ill and unable to speak up due to the trauma and torture she had endured. It seemed she would not survive," shares Moriam. The girl used to go to school before marriage and was among the healthy children of the village. After her marriage, she had to face excessive torture for dowry and had to do all household chores. Moriam's group rescued the girl and admitted her to a hospital. Later they helped her get a divorce. The girl's father repented and said that he didn't know about the laws that could help his daughter. The girl, who is yet to recover from her trauma, is still undergoing treatment.
In late 2019, a girl of Tatoir village was married to a 31-year-old man when she was only 11 with barely any understanding about her menstruation. Her marriage occurred after the death of her mother and her father's second marriage. She was raped by her husband every day. Once she went to visit her parents, she refused to return to her husband. Her parents were negligent towards her mental and physical changes and were insisting on her return. When her in-laws went to take her to her husband one day, she fled from home. "A businessman of Sapahar market rescued her," recalls Moriam. The girl later told Moriam that she had run because she didn't dare to end her own life. "We talked to her parents and in-laws, but they were hell-bent on preserving her marriage," says Moriam. She had to shelter the girl in her own home for two weeks. Later the girl was returned to her parents upon her father's assurance that he would not force the girl to go to her husband's house. Within a few days, Moriam's group assisted the girl in getting a divorce. A few weeks later, the father attempted to marry her off again, but this time, she informed the group members. She was later shifted to one of her relative's houses and is now studying at high school.
"Despite our continuous watch, some marriages are taking place beyond our knowledge. Parents are 'tricking' us by taking their girls outside the villages for their marriage," shares Moriam.
"A child marriage was taking place in a running microbus. We stopped it after receiving information from the microbus driver," says Iftekhar Alam, a member of the civil society group of Moharajpur union in Chapainawabganj. He said that the girl's parents were only convinced after the local administration gave them cattle and other facilities. Alam was among a total of ten activists under the NETZ project who shared similar stories. All of the activists mentioned they feel the need for expanding the villager network to all villages. "If the network extended to every village in the country, none would be able to marry off their girl children. Most child marriages are ending in divorce and injuries to the girls, after all," adds Alam.
While talking about the overall impact of the project, Shahidul Islam, Director, NETZ, comments: "Besides the tremendous work carried out by the local CSOs, I think, the most important impact of the project is the emergence of high school girls and boys as future representatives of CSOs for their community. Girls are taking self-defence training and disseminating the knowledge in their neighbourhood. Girls and boys are preparing harassment maps to stop gender-based violence at public places in their localities, which has been one of the critical causes for early marriage. They are developing theatre scripts on the negative consequences of child marriage and performing them for mass awareness. Many active youths have also become the contact points for girls at risk of early marriage. These young CSOs are keeping close contact with the relevant local authorities responsible for stopping child marriage. They have plenty of success stories of how they have stopped child marriages and gender-based harassment in public places."
He further adds that these young people are willing to stay with their community and continue their good work even after the project ended. The local authority, along with relevant government officials, should use this strength in the future. Their activities should be encouraged and followed up regularly.
"Our experience shows that there are progressive laws for preventing gender-based violence, but what is missing is proper implementation. Lack of local community engagement in planning and implementing gender-related activities is one of the major concerns that hold us back on this. Effective partnership between local CSOs, including youth and government authorities, can ensure our girls are living their lives to the fullest," says Shahidul Islam.
Anwar Ali is Rajshahi Correspondent of The Daily Star