By Gloria Das
World Vision Bangladesh

In a Bangladeshi village, a group of school girls trill a little melody inside a classroom. They are celebrating. The marriage of their friend, 15-year-old Suborna Khanam, has been annulled.

The young girls who gather in this classroom are the members of a children’s group that works with World Vision. Suborna, a sponsored child who lives in Maksudpur ADP, who is among them, and is in Grade 10.

Suborna

This youth group is one she helped start, along with her friends, so that she could become more engaged with social and development work. Little did she know that she would one day need their assistance.

“The Child Forum’s collective are sowing seeds of change. There are weekly meetings where we get together in a safe place to learn, have fun, and talk about what is happening in our communities. We learn about the links between teenage pregnancy and high rates of infant and maternal mortality and all the other adverse health effects of early marriage. The members are sensitised about their rights,” Suborna says.

The group has been working with World Vision since 2010. Such collectives are part of child-focused interventions of World Vision Bangladesh to boost the confidence of teenage children and to fight child marriage – a practice that continues across the country, particularly in rural communities, despite a legal ban.

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Suborna is in a red headscarf

“World Vision has changed my life,” Suborna says.

Recently, Suborna’s father came to the school. He had decided to take his daughter back home, as he arranged a partner for her. A groom with a plot of land of his own and with a little dowry was found. Suborna’s wish of continuing her education was considered a luxury that could hardly be afforded. The family did not have the spare money for the additional expenses and reasoned that marriage was the better option.

“When my father told me I was going to be married off, I felt my life had been ruined. I visualized a life like that of my mother—marriage, lots of children. Full stop. All dreams shattered,” Suborna says.

She immediately protested. She told her friends in the Bandhan Child Forum. When the group learned about Suborna’s situation, they immediately intervened and contacted her parents.

“We were sure we’d be able to prevent her wedding,” says a confidence Raihan, the group’s leader. “We talked to her parents at length and tried to make them understand what evils early marriage involves. Finally, we succeeded and Suborna came back to school,” Raihan smiles.

At school, Suborna was performing brilliantly.

“Neither of her parents can read nor write. So, she was not supposed to be allowed to go to school,” explains Suborna’s uncle. “The village (her parents live in) also does not have any high school and she would have had to travel 3km if she wanted to continue her studies. So, I took her with me,” he says. From primary school to current day, Suborna has stayed with her uncle.

But as her uncle is also a landless farmer, like her parents, he did not have enough income to take care of his niece’s educational expenses alone. Soon after Suborna came to live with him, he learned about World Vision’s sponsorship programme from one of his neighbours. Suborna then became involved with Muksudpur ADP’s child sponsorship programme and received educational support, including special coaching classes organised for the sponsored children of the ADP.

Things were passing smoothly. Suborna passed her primary school studies with good results and then was admitted to Grade 6 at a high school in Muksudpur Upazila.

“I was just thrilled with joy when I remember the first day of my new class. I still could feel the smell of my new books. Thank you World Vision, my real friend in need,” Suborna says.

In secondary school, after her parents initially told her she would have to get married and returned to school, Suborna continued to achieve good marks.

“I can remember the day when our class teacher called me and gave me the good news – I stood first in the class,” Suborna says.

Suborna decided to go back home to share the good news with her parents. But Suborna’s parents were unimpressed. Instead, they again raised the issue of marriage.

“I was so unhappy about the marriage. This time I told my mother who also did not agree with me and they locked me at my room. Then I sought help,” she says.

Scared, Suborna made a plan. She pretended to become seriously ill and was taken to a nearby hospital. At the hospital, she snuck out and returned to her uncle’s place. She was safe, at least for the time being.

“From her childhood, she was not like other girls of her age. There was something different in her. I was so impressed to see her strong confidence to stand up to wrong, to care for others and especially for her strong craving for higher studies,” says Helal Qazi, Suborna’s 40-year-old uncle.

Back at her uncle’s place, Suborna immediately contacted with Child Forum members and informed them about the incident. They, in turn, contacted a World Vision child forum coordinator who worked for the Muksudpur ADP.

The child forum coordinator talked to Suborna’s parents and explained the law, as well as other implications, related to child marriage. Finally, her parents gave their consent for their daughter to not get married before she turns 18. However, they also stated that they could no longer afford to pay any expenses related to Suborna.

Finally Suborna’s marriage was put on hold.

To help her earn money, World Vision helped Suborna complete a seven-month Life Skills Based Education (LSBE) course. She now works as a facilitator and coaching volunteer groups to work at the community level. She works on campaigns and teaches rural households about different social and development issues like health, water, sanitation and hygiene, women and child rights, dowries, women’s empowerment and violence against women.. She is now getting Taka 800 (RM34) per session and facilitates 16 sessions in a month.

“This course leads to better psycho-social competence and helps participants to make responsible decisions and build the competency to lead a healthy and productive life. It is also helpful for developing leadership capacity of adolescents. At the same time, I could work for my community’s development also,” Suborna says.

Monika Biswas, the child forum coordinator of Muksudpur ADP, says, “World Vision use a multi-pronged approach for child development – empowering adolescents by forming child forums, building youth groups to work on child marriage issues, Life Skill Based Education courses (LSBE), women groups, children in schools, etc. Along with all this, we aim to integrate a community-based strategy involving village leaders, community groups and government departments to reintegrate children into formal school system. These initiatives became an integral element of our work on child marriage.”

As Suborna’s story illustrates, success stems from this collective approach. She is now a household name in her community when it comes to protesting against underage marriage.

“We decided to join hands and campaign against the evils of child marriage. We enjoy certain privileges like being able to go inside the house and communicate with the women – something men don’t,” Suborna explains.

Suborna’s track record is quite commendable. She and her child forum friends also prevented many other underage marriages in her village. Grade 6 students Kamalika, Chaity and Dipti and Grade 7 student Hena are some of the names who went back to school, thanks to Suborna’s initiative.

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Suborna is in a red headscarf

“World Vision has made my parents to proud of me. I finally made my father understand that his daughters could be his support in old age. And I succeeded. My youngest two sisters are now also going to school,” Suborna says smilingly.

“Now my eyes are filled with new dreams, dreams of hope and aspiration. I want to study more and become a teacher in the future so that I could improve up my community with an education,” she says.

Shahid Fakir, who was once disgusted with his daughter’s obstinacy, is a proud father today. “I was going to make a big mistake, but my daughter stopped us in the nick of time,” he smiles.