Bangladesh, a nation of 160 million located on the Bay of Bengal in South Asia, has the world's highest rate of child marriage for girls younger than 15, according to a 2016 report from Human Rights Watch, which called the situation an "epidemic." Overall, 65 percent of Bangladeshi girls are married by the age of 18.
A Seventh-day Adventist group is among the key non-governmental organizations, or NGOs, there steadily addressing this troubling issue. The Child Rights & Protection (CRP) unit of the Seventh-day Adventist church in Bangladesh offers awareness training and education for both children and adults to prevent child marriage and child abuse in the country.
Together, this team is making inroads among Adventist boarding schools and churches
CRP recently conducted training for Adventist boarding school principals on November 1 at the Bangladesh Adventist Union Mission in Dhaka. With a focus on child abuse and child marriage prevention, the goal of the day was to help principals further spread prevention messages and methods to their staff and community leaders in their areas. It is part of a strategic plan to reach communities through schools.
Some might consider it a timely response to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s October 27 official launch of the Child Help line 1098, a free national 24-hour helpline that children in danger or adults reporting child abuse can call. With what is considered a revolutionary move in the country, Hasina also encouraged greater awareness for the protection of children.
However, before the creation of the helpline, CRP has been quietly forging a path with its extensive training and resources. Since its inception in 2014, CRP coordinator Ofelia Raksham and her staff of two, Rancy Biswas and Rony Sircar, have diligently worked to create awareness. Racksham’s previous experience in education and child advocacy has given her a wealth of experience and a passion to make lasting changes for children in Bangladesh. Biswas’s background as a boarding school student for 12 years provides the group with insight about the challenges and mindsets of such students, particularly young girls. Finally, Sircar, as the lone male on the staff, has a vital role. In addition to providing a male presence during training and trips to rural areas where unaccompanied women are greeted with skepticism and might face reprisals, Sircar explains the laws regarding marriage in Bangladesh. His previous job experience in the legal sector adds credibility when dealing with male leaders in a given community.
Together, this team is making inroads among Adventist boarding schools and churches, especially in rural areas where high poverty levels and strong cultural traditions contribute to greater incidences of child abuse and marriage. Due to the high community regard for Adventist education, the church’s boarding schools have a unique opportunity to use their influence to spread awareness and education regarding children’s issues.
Yet the challenges are great. It takes time, patience, and understanding of community mindset to make a real impact about child abuse and child marriage. First, there needs to be an understanding of what is child marriage. With the legal marrying age being 18 in Bangladesh, anyone younger than this is considered a child. Recently, there has been a government suggestion to lower the legal age to 16 which caused alarm among child protection groups. It points to a need for greater understanding about the causes and outcomes of child marriage.
The contributing factors for child marriage are varied and complicated. CRP staff note that traditionally sons support their parents in Bangladeshi culture while daughters are absorbed into their husbands’ families after marriage. Poor families do not have the finances to support both sons and daughters so sons are given priority for education and other opportunities. Coupled with this is the tradition of the bride’s family giving a dowry to the groom. The younger the bride, the smaller the dowry so it is more economically feasible for poor families to have their daughters marry early. Additionally, some parents feel that their daughters will avoid potential sexual attacks or illicit relationships if they are married before reaching mid and late teen years.
Regardless of the reasoning, concerned advocates such as the CRP staff cite compelling facts that reveal that the negative impact of child marriage upon girls and families negates any perceived benefit over time. “Within two years or so after a child marriage, the girls often return to their families with a child and thus the family has a greater burden than before,” states Racksham. “And there are greater chances of domestic violence if the girl stays with the husband or if they return to their families and they don’t know how to parent a baby since they are children themselves,” add Biswas and Sircar.
Community responses have been varied and sometimes surprising
As a starting point for increased awareness, CPW staff conducted training in each of the Adventist schools for both students and staff. The student program identifies child abuse, introduces children to their rights, and teaches them ways to protect themselves. They use child-friendly material such as the 5-finger way to respond to bullying or predators. Each finger represents a protective action/reaction a child can take. At first the children weren’t sure how to respond, according to Ricksham, but later visits reveal that the children teach other children the techniques. Ricksham feels this peer-to-peer awareness is exactly what is needed to make lasting change in communities.
Community responses have been varied and sometimes surprising. Initially, there is skepticism and resistance even among church members and leaders, but as the very real effects of child marriage and abuse are explained, school and CRP staff have seen opinions change. Faced with the reality of the emotional effects of arranged marriages upon young girls, the risks early pregnancies have upon teenagers, the increased potential for domestic violence due to spousal age differences, and the loss of education and employment that might have improved a family’s economic situation, skeptics begin to realize that there might be more healthy options for children. “There are things we need to overcome but the awareness is the start,” Ricksham said.
CPR encourages schools to work with local leaders to provide activities for world child awareness days such as the Stop Child Marriage Day on September 29. This year schools hosted school activities such as role plays and debates as well as community activities such as parades and discussion groups. However, the goal is to not just promote these special days. Principals such as Robin Drong of the Jalchatra Adventist Seminary and School, a 120-student primary school in northern Bangladesh, see these activities as the beginning of ongoing, positive conversations with their communities about child issues.
“Last week we had a big awareness meeting in a community,” Drong said. “It is a Muslim community. There was a big tent for my seminar there. So many women from the community came. The women said they need more meetings like this and asked for me to please come back,” he added. Due to the overwhelmingly positive reaction, school leaders plan to offer more awareness meetings for the community in the next year.
Training and advocacy are a start and this dedicated team believes that their message will spread throughout the communities of Bangladesh.
Stories such as this are part of CRP’s motivation to work wholeheartedly for children. Each CRP staff member has great hopes for the future of children in Bangladesh. Racksham looks to “the next phase of our program which is parent education and empowerment. The children are learning. The parents must know so there is a balance, so the children and parents can come together in understanding.”
Biswas said, “After our seminars, students know not just their rights but also their responsibilities. They are more balanced and better able to protect themselves. If they know this, they can change themselves and others by sharing what they know. Then the ones they tell will tell others and it will go on and on.” He envisions a future in which children, especially girls, in Bangladesh can be children and focus on learning and growing without the fear of abuse or forced marriages.
Training and advocacy are a start and this dedicated team believes that their message will spread throughout the communities of Bangladesh. They dream that one day people will associate Adventists with those who speak out against tragedies such as child marriage and abuse, combatting these with compassion, education and perseverance.
CRP is a part of the church’s Bangladesh Children’s Sponsorship Services (BCSS) under the umbrella of Bangladesh Adventist Union Mission (BAUM) through the donor agency of Asian Aid Australia. BAUM is one of the 14 countries in the Southern Asia-Pacific Division and has almost 29,000 members in this Muslim-majority nation.