Youth makes a difference
Ramkhana is a union in the remote northern district of Kurigram.
Just five years ago, nothing much happened there beyond the mundane. Teenage boys were prone to drugs and girls more likely to be married off well before reaching their marriageable age.
And most people chose to stand idly by.
But Kumar Bishwajit Barman decided to go against the grain. He was the first to feel and make others feel that there are other ways of living a meaningful life.
It was in September 2010. Then 18, Bishwajit sat with his like-minded friends and set up "Ashar Allo Pathshala" with the vision to stop child marriage and drug addiction, to provide teenagers with free education and make them aware of the ills of early marriage and drug abuse.
What Bishwajit has achieved in five years is no less than a silent social revolution. In two upazilas -- Nageshwari and Fulbari -- they have so far stopped 668 child marriages and offered free tuition to several hundred girls and boys on top of educating around 400 adults.
Under the banner of his Pathshala, Bishwajit has collected several hundred school students as volunteers who inform him whenever there is any incident of child marriage. Biswajit then takes it upon himself to inform the local administration, which takes care of the rest.
“A class four student in September 2010 -- Ramisa Sultana -- of Brac School was about to be married off. Her father was short of hearing and couldn't contribute even a penny to the family. So, her parents found no reason in letting her continue education,” said Bishwajit, who himself was a class 10 student back then.
“Hearing the incident, we intimidated the groom and stopped the marriage. A few weeks later, we went to Ramisa's house and promised her parents that we'll bear all expenses for her studies. Our movement against child marriage began this way," he related.
"Ours is not an academic school. We collect students from different schools and provide them free tuition. In so doing, we try to make them aware of the devastating consequences of child marriage and drug addiction," Bishwajit explained.
Asked what exactly motivated him to launch this campaign, he said child marriage was a curse, making young girls vulnerable to various forms of domestic violence. The number of divorced young women was increasing in his union due to child marriage.
He also said drug abuse was spreading among teenagers at an alarming speed, making them morally depraved.
At present, 160 students are being given tuition at the Pathshala. Of them, 145 are female students and 100 among them were saved from early marriage by his team. Besides, 45 adults, who are not students, also receive education there.
Bishwajit said that now nobody in the nearby unions would dare to arrange a child marriage. He said they promised parents of more than 60 girls to take all of their financial responsibilities for their study.
“I won't claim that we have been able to stop all child marriages in our union and the adjacent ones. Due to our efforts, people now secretly arrange marriages without registration,” he said, adding that the positive aspect of his effort is that people now are more enthused about sending their kids to schools.
Needless to say, it was an uphill struggle for Bishwajit. Whenever he tried to stop an early marriage, the girl's family members blamed him for trying to ruin her life. At times, there were also threats from influential people.
After stopping Ramisa's marriage, he had to flee the village and stay elsewhere for several days, his friends said.
Aminur, one of his friends who helped Bishwajit, said, "Although we helped him at the beginning, we all got busy with our studies and career at some point. We salute him for taking this campaign forward single-handedly with such determination."
He said, "Bishwajit passed the admission test of Rajshahi University with flying colours. But he didn't get admitted so that he could continue his work with Ashar Allo campaign."
He also said the Ashar Allo campaign was totally Bishwajit's brainchild.
He said, "But the biggest obstacle came from our own families. Bishwajit's family put a lot of pressure on him and even went as far as forcing him out of the house once. His parents wanted him to concentrate on his studies instead."
However, the Deputy Commissioner, the Upazila Nirbahi Officer and local Union Parishad Chairman helped him in his efforts.
Contacted, Ramkhana Union Parishad Chairman Shahidur Rahman Talukder said his union is severely infected with drug abuse and child marriage. The initiative that Bishwajit has taken was helping them a lot to address these problems, he said.
“The DC and the UNO are coming to the union and holding meetings to make people aware. Had more youths come forward like Bishwajit, things would be much easier for us,” he told The Daily Star over the phone.
Nageswari UNO Abu Hayat Mohammad Rahmatullah said they view Bishwajit's initiative very positively. “We give all-out support and assistance to him. Our support will continue in future,” he said.
Biswajit's efforts earned him a special award from the Kurigram DC and the Joy Bangla Youth Award from the Young Bangla organisation.
Biswajit, now an honours second year student at Rangpur Karmaikel College, has to spend seven to eight thousand takas a month to pay the tuition fees for many students whom he has taken under his wings. He does a few tuition jobs to manage the money.
“I don't know whether I could continue this Pathshala with my little capacity. I always pray to God so that I can continue this journey,” he told The Daily Star on Friday.
Although Bishwajit has headed the project, many of his friends have helped him throughout ever since it began.
He said the ones who helped him the most include Aminur, Dipu, Lisa, Florin, Rafiqul, Nazmin, Shumon, Sabina, Swapon, Raju, Habib, Chanchal, Bishnu and Rafis.