Reshma Akhter, a sixth grader from the Farajipara area in Kurigram Sadar upazila, grew up in a poor family. In her locality, most households are poor and there is a tradition among them — marrying off girls at an early age to lighten the family burden.
But Reshma is passionate about pursuing higher education, following in the footsteps of her elder sister who passed the HSC exam last year.
"There is a group of teenage girls in our village. With the help of government employees and NGO workers, we are working to raise awareness against child marriage, which creates various types of physical problems for girls, including life-threatening conditions during pregnancy," she said, adding that her family is very understanding of these issues and is letting her and her sister study.
Like Reshma's family, a change in behaviour has been observed among other families in this area, located on the banks of the River Dharla, thanks to a social project funded by Unicef.
World Vision, a global humanitarian organisation, is implementing the project, "Social Behavior Change (SBC)", which commenced on 1 December 2022 and will run till 30 November 2024.
The objective of the project — being implemented to benefit 14 lakh people in six upazilas of Kurigram, Chapainawabganj and Gaibandha districts — is to create awareness among all people about the dangers of child abuse and child marriage.
It also aims to bring behavioural changes in parents, children, adolescents and influential people in these areas and increasing social participation to prevent child marriage and child abuse.
Reportedly, 122 child marriages have been prevented through the project so far in these areas.
How the project is being implemented
Social awareness campaigns, jointly conducted by the Department of Social Service, the Department of Women Affairs, the Local Government Division and NGOs, are slowly changing the trend of child marriage in Kurigram Sadar upazila.
Abdul Ghafur, chairman of Jatrapur Union Parishad No 9 of Kurigram Sadar, told The Business Standard, "Rice is grown once a year in this region, which is in severe danger of river erosion. Apart from this, some crops, including corn, wheat and pulses are cultivated. The people here are poor, and because of poverty they marry off underage girls. But this trend is changing, as people are becoming aware of the negative consequences of such marriage."
Kurigram's Rajarhat Upazila Nirbahi Officer (UNO) Nur-e-Tasnim said the district is crisscrossed by 16 rivers and has a perennial problem of river erosion. Child marriage is one of the biggest social problems.
"We are working to reduce child marriage. Every ward in every union has a women and child protection committee. Those committees are holding meetings every month, creating awareness against child marriage and abuse and changing social behaviour," Tasnim said.
Besides, various seminars and workshops have been conducted with the marriage officiant (locally known as Kazi) and marriage registrars so that they can be held accountable for child marriage, the UNO added.
Unicef Rangpur and Rajshahi Divisional Chief AH Towfique Ahmed said the Child Marriage Restraint Act 2017 emphasises the formation of the Child Marriage Prevention Committee at the district, upazila and union levels and the role of multi-sectoral government officials along with local government representatives to stop child marriage.
He also said, "Through Unicef-European Union supported local advocacy, capacity building and community engagement initiatives in Rangpur and Rajshahi Divisions, we are vigorously working with partners to strengthen these local committees and local administrative measures in a child marriage prevention drive."
Bangladesh tops South Asia in child marriage
The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) released the State of World Population Report 2023, titled "'8 Billion Lives, Infinite Possibilities", last 19 April, where Bangladesh topped South Asia in child marriage. Around 51% of girls are getting married before the age of 18, said the report.
According to the report, child marriage increases the risk of early pregnancy. In Bangladesh, mothers aged 15 to 19 give birth to 74 children per 1000. Child marriage has an overall impact on maternal and child health, in addition to increasing the risk of maternal and neonatal mortality.
The Maldives has the lowest rate of child marriage in South Asia — just 2%. The rate is 10% in Sri Lanka, 18% in Pakistan, 23% in India, 26% in Bhutan, 28% in Afghanistan and 33% in Nepal. ***