Bangladesh’s New Generation in a Time of Progress


Bangladesh’s New Generation in a Time of Progress

You may have never thought about visiting Bangladesh, but it is likely that you will find products in your wardrobe that are made in the country, which is the world’s second-largest garment exporter.

In the past ten years, thanks to a demographic dividend, strong ready-made garment exports and stable macroeconomic conditions, Bangladesh has been one of the world’s fastest growing economies. When Bangladesh became independent in 1971, it was one of the world’s poorest nations, and only reached lower-middle-income status in 2015. Its efforts to alleviate poverty have also been remarkable, with the poverty rate dropping from 44% in 1991 to 14% in 2016, based on the international poverty line of US$1.9 a day (about HK$15).

In these last two years, like most countries, Bangladesh has been dealing with the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, which have not only hampered economic development, but also reversed some of the successes of the past decade. In 2020, the pandemic has decelerated economic growth and the pace of poverty reduction, with the poverty rate in 2020 rising to 18% from 14%.

Also, Bangladesh’s geographical location makes it vulnerable to the impact of climate change and natural disasters, such as cyclones and floods. In fact, it is ranked as the seventh most affected country in the Global Climate Risk Index 2021 report. From 2000 to 2019, Bangladesh experienced 185 climate events, which affected both economic activities and the livelihoods of vulnerable families. Meanwhile, over 800,000 Rohingyas, more than half of them children, are still seeking refuge in Cox’s Bazar, the world’s largest refugee camp. While their needs are immense, a long-term solution is yet to be found.

These factors have surely cast doubts over the future development of Bangladesh. However, what affects the growth of children most has always been gender inequality, with generations of Bangladeshi girls exposed to the threat of child marriage. Even though the law states that girls under 18 may not marry, Bangladesh still holds the world’s fourth-highest child marriage rate. According to figures by the United Nations Development Programme, about 59% of girls in Bangladesh are married before reaching 18.
Poverty remains a daily reality for many vulnerable families in Bangladesh. Some 43% of the employed population is classified as working poor living on less than HK$25 a day. Poverty has caused many children to drop out of school into child labour, robbing them of their right to an education. It also pushes many parents to marry off their children at young ages, as families of younger brides often pay a lower dowry, eliminating some of the financial “burden” and giving families “one less mouth to feed”. However, strong cultural acceptance and weak law enforcement mean that child marriage remains a problem still to be eradicated.

Premature marriage hurts both girls and boys, affecting them in terms of both psychosocial and emotional wellbeing. Girls who get married, become pregnant and give birth prematurely may face severe health risks, such as gestational disorders, anaemia and stillbirth, because their body is yet to be fully developed. Their babies also tend to be underweight or suffer other diseases. In addition, excessive household chores often hinder girls’ development, while the threats of domestic violence, such as beatings, intimidation and sexual abuse, tend to scar girls physically and emotionally. Many pieces of research have shown that delaying marriage and keeping girls in school is important for their healthy development and future economic opportunities.
World Vision first became involved with East Pakistan (today’s Bangladesh) in the early 1970s by providing relief aid for cyclone victims and refugees displaced by the war between India and Pakistan. Following Bangladesh's independence, World Vision set up an office in Dhaka in 1973 and started relief and rehabilitation programmes at the invitation of the Bangladesh Government.

Currently, World Vision’s work spans across 29 sub-districts, including Area Development Programmes supported by child sponsors and other projects. One of these is the Nobo Jatra (New Beginning) project started in 2015, which addresses the root causes of child marriage by responding in sectors including gender equality, maternal health, water and sanitation, food security and livelihoods, etc, so as to improve access to quality education and life skills for girls. The project also engages men and boys, raising awareness about the consequences of child marriage, in order to effectively address the multiple driving factors of child marriage in the country.

According to the latest report by World Vision, Breaking the Chain: Empowering girls and communities to end child marriages during COVID-19 and beyond, since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the closure of schools, limited abilities to work and movement restrictions have resulted in entire families staying at home in Bangladesh. To get a better picture of how the pandemic was affecting children and their families, World Vision conducted an impact assessment in the Nobo Jatra project area. Almost one-third (28%) of households reported that risks of child marriage and other forms of gender-based violence have increased during the pandemic, and 4% of families even reported that they had already had to marry off one of their children since the start of the pandemic. 60% of the respondents felt that the safety and security of women and girls was a concern in the context of the pandemic, which is a factor driving families to consider child marriage. All of this shows that the children of Bangladesh, especially girls, are now at a greater risk of becoming victims of child marriage.

Marriage is something that many girls long for. Child marriage, however, tends to leave behind lifelong scars. In Bangladesh and other developing countries, many girls simply have no say in the matter of their very own marriage, which is especially evident in the past two years during the pandemic. In the Breaking the Chain report, World Vision points out that 2020 alone saw the greatest surge in child marriage rates in 25 years. Between March and December 2020, child marriages more than doubled in many communities compared to 2019. The time to end child marriage is now.

Eka: I can say no to child marriage

Even in countries where there are laws to prevent child marriage — like Bangladesh — the practice can be deeply rooted in culture and largely accepted in society. Most people are not even aware that the practice is illegal. As long as there is parental consent, children are often allowed to marry regardless of their age. But the practice is devastating: Early marriage can significantly impact a girl’s ability to continue with her education. Many girls are forced to drop out in order to focus on domestic responsibilities or to raise children of their own. But as children themselves, they are not physically and emotionally prepared to become mothers. Teen moms and their babies are both at a higher risk of dying in childbirth. Robbed of the chance to grow, learn, and fully realise their potential, child brides are disempowered. Without an education, they are unable to end the cycle of poverty for themselves or their family.

These are all things that Eka, 14, learned when she was selected to participate in a life skills education course offered by the Nobo Jatra project at her school in southwest Bangladesh. So far, over 19,000 teenagers have completed the course. When Eka’s parents began to arrange a marriage for her to a man at least 20 years older than her, she had the confidence to say no. Eka says, “I said to my parents, ‘Right now, I don’t want to get married. I have a long life and a dream in front of me.’”

Her parents resisted initially, but drawing on what she learned in the life skills education course, Eka successfully used her communication skills and child marriage data to convince her parents. “Again and again, I tried to make them understand,” she says. “I want to be something in my life.”
Shortly thereafter, when Eka’s 14-year-old cousin learned that her parents were arranging her marriage, Eka stepped in and successfully convinced her cousin’s parents to drop the idea. Both she and her cousin were able to continue their education. “I felt so good that I could stop the marriages,” Eka says.

During the COVID-19 pandemic when schools were closed by the Government of Bangladesh to curb the virus, Eka stayed busy and proactive. She enrolled herself in courses on tailoring and basic computer skills, while also graduating from high school. She is now a first-year college student who dreams of becoming a nurse and is determined to continue stopping child marriages in her community.

Dola: I raised my voice against child marriage at the UN

“Many people of Bangladesh treat girl children as a burden. My mother was also a victim of that kind of mentality,” Dola shares. She remembers asking her mother to describe memories from her childhood, but her mother struggled to recall much. She had been forced into child marriage at 13. “From her childhood she had to manage a family.”

“She dreamed of becoming a banker, but her father and mother treated her as a burden,” Dola said. “They forced her to get married. She faced physical and mental violence from her husband,” says Dola.

Dola nearly suffered the same fate at 12 years old when community members insisted that she be married off to “a very good boy”. Dola’s mother turned them away, determined to keep her child in school. She did not see Dola as a burden. She knew her daughter was a blessing.

Inspired by her mother, Dola has been advocating with World Vision to end child marriage since she was 10 years old. At the age of 16, Dola attended the Day of the Girl Child 2019 event at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, where she declared in an address, “Girls are not a burden. Girls can go further than we imagined.”
“In my country, some parents, especially those from traditional communities, believe that child marriage is a way of protecting their daughters,” says Dola. Tragically, they are wrong, as girls are in fact more likely to stay in poverty this way. Like Dola’s mother, girls who are married as children are more likely to become victims of domestic violence and abuse. They are also at a higher risk of dying from childbirth.

Dola became a sponsored child at the age of 4. World Vision engages with communities, parents and the children themselves to teach and inspire them to come together against child marriage and other forms of violence against children. Dola was therefore trained and empowered to advocate for her rights. At the age of only 10, Dola started volunteering with her local child forum. She was glad to find out it was supported by World Vision, which she describes as “an organisation working for child rights and protection” that works “to create a child-friendly environment, where children can enjoy their rights.”

Later, Dola even joined the leadership team. “My child forum works to stop child marriage,” says Dola. “We, as children, should engage in actions to end child marriage because we know other children’s pain and how much they suffer.” When a classmate is in danger of child marriage, the child forum takes action. Through the child forum, girls are empowered to ask for meetings with community leaders, to talk to school principals, and to write letters to local law enforcement officers, demanding that adults uphold the law and intervene.

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