Girl Shine: committed to preventing early marriage
We've observed a reduction in domestic violence, a better understanding of gender equality, and more moral support from male caregivers once their daughters began attending our sessions.
Jebunnessa*, a 15-year-old, has been admitted to the Severe Acute Malnutrition unit at Ramu Upazila Health Complex with her child, Afsan, a ten-month-old boy suffering from the same medical condition.
"My son had frequent fevers and diarrhoea, and his growth was very limited, which worried me. I also had difficulty breastfeeding him because I was malnourished myself," said the mother, who has been undergoing treatment since November last year.
Jebunnesa is not the only adolescent mother admitted to this unit. Many others, including Asma*, Firoza*, Sufia*, and Rani* and their children, are also being treated at the unit as they battle different forms of malnutrition.
According to Dr Tahmid Ashraf of the hospital, the aforementioned conditions are direct consequences of early marriages.
"Among the children admitted here, 10 to 12 percent are suffering from malnutrition, and each of their mothers was married off before they reached adulthood," he said.
Aside from the health risks and mortality, child marriage causes long-term consequences in the lives of the mothers. Early marriages not only cause early pregnancy and neonatal deaths due to malnutrition, but also contribute to increasing school dropout rates, limiting women's chances of becoming economically independent, say experts.
Despite the government targeting to stop marriages of girls under 15 and reducing early marriages of those aged 15-18 by one-third by 2021 with the National Action Plan, around 72 percent of girls in Ramu are subjected to early marriage, the third highest among Cox's Bazar upazilas, says a study conducted in the same year.
Girl Shine, a transformative approach, funded by USAID, from the American people, and coordinated by the International Rescue Committee (IRC) in collaboration with Young Power in Social Action (YPSA), began its journey in July 2022 with the goal of preventing early marriage.
The initiative aims to empower 600 adolescent girls and their caregivers in Cox's Bazar's Ramu and Chakaria through awareness and skills development.
The project plays a crucial role in enhancing the prevention and response to gender-based violence (GBV), by providing girls with the knowledge and skills to identify different forms of GBV and access support services when needed.
"My marriage was arranged with a boy from a well-off family just before my SSC exam. But I raised my voice against it, and I got the support of my teachers too," said Meher Afroz*, a student who regularly attends sessions conducted by Girl Shine.
Many others, like Meher, have also stood firm against early marriages in their respective communities.
The parents appreciate this programme as many of them believe it will help develop laidback regions like Ramu, mentioned Shamsher Uddin Mustafa, project coordinator of YPSA.
"We've observed a reduction in domestic violence, a better understanding of gender equality, and more moral support from male caregivers once their daughters began attending our sessions," said Rebecca Oketcho, deputy director (programmes) of IRC.
Umme Suraya Amin, upazila women's affairs officer, said, "After all, we all want to ensure that the girls are living the life they deserve and play pivotal roles in advancing our societies towards sustainability."
(*Names of the girls have been changed for their protection)