Field research has shown that youth activism is a common strategy used in the development or human rights sector in Bangladesh. One area of work where this is quite prominent is in the prevention of child marriage. Child marriage is an enduring challenge in Bangladesh, which has one of the highest rates of early marriage in the world.
On the tenth anniversary of the International Day of the Girl Child, we wanted to reflect on the role of youth leaders in combatting child marriage in Bangladesh.
Youth activists combatting child marriage
As part of SuPWR, BRAC Institute of Governance and Development (BIGD) is undertaking a study focusing on different strategies taken by movements to persevere, despite facing obstacles and social backlash. While conducting the study, we noticed that one popular strategy is the facilitation of youth-led spaces to create awareness through peer-learning, as it creates youth leaders to act as role-models for the various wings in their respective community.
Many organisations working to combat child marriage use Article 12 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), which recognises that “children have the right to participate in all matters that affect their lives, directly or indirectly”, as their guiding principle. The creation of youth wings provide a space for youth to increase their own knowledge and voice on the dangers of child marriage in the hope that this would allow them to save not only themselves, but also their peers, from the harmful practice.
During focus group discussions (FGDs), one NGO, which is a member of the Girls Not Brides colaition, spoke highly of their youth activists, praising their ability to discuss matters of sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) with peers, carrying out ‘forum theatre’ on important issues, and influencing public perceptions of the abilities and potential of girl children. However, upon further probing during FGDs and individual interviews, the activists also revealed that despite being labelled by NGOs as a source of power for other young girls, the youth activists too have limited voice.
Prior research done by BIGD also shows that young people actually have very little say when they get married. Even in cases where the youth knew of the legal and medical reasons to avoid early marriage, as well as the preventive measures they could avail, they still were not able to make much of a difference. Different versions of the two stories below were seen throughout the study. Although both had ample knowledge about the negative effects of child marriage and were eager to complete their education, only one managed to delay the wedding until they reached adulthood. So what role, if any, does the practice of youth leadership play in combatting child marriage?
Awareness vs agency
In 2021, we met Shayla (pseudonym) through our research project at BIGD on ‘Adolescent Girls’ Vulnerabilities and Transitions during the Pandemic’. At the time, Shayla was 15 and had her Secondary School Certificate exams coming up. She had already been married for a year and was expecting a child. She had never been associated with any NGO or leadership programmes.
Shayla had not wanted to get married and had tried to convince her parents to let her finish her education. She knew that the Prevention of Child Marriage Act 2017 dictates that girls below the age of 18 cannot be married. Shayla also knew about preventive measures such as contacting her teacher, the chairman or any of the local human rights organisations that could bring her external help. However, she never contacted them, as she believed that would bring “dishonour” to her parents and ruin their reputation in society. She also believed that her parents would not listen to her, so she accepted her fate and was soon married to a man of her parents’ choosing.
Despite Shayla’s increased awareness, she could not properly utilise it because of her “limited voice”. The rationale around youth leadership is to increase the confidence of girls to speak up, enhancing their agency and use of voice beyond passive awareness.
Jhuma (pseudonym), on the other hand, is a youth leader in a village far from Shayla. She has been affiliated with local human right organisations for nearly a decade in an effort to decrease child marriage. Jhuma belongs to a community where child marriage is normalised, with girls often married off at the age of 14-15. Through her work, Jhuma aims to create awareness about the negative effects of child marriage and ultimately the legal prohibition of the harmful practice. In Jhuma’s case, she had parents who were keen for her to continue her education. She reached 18 years of age without falling prey to the threat of marriage.
However, youth leaders face a different kind of threat. Their efforts to stop a well-accepted community tradition means they often make enemies out of older, powerful community leaders. Jhuma has so far failed to stop most marriages in the community, and rather her attempts have resulted in her facing threats to expel her from the community itself. Being from a remote, socioeconomically vulnerable community means that such an expulsion could be extremely difficult to overcome. Her fellow youth leaders (both male and female) regularly hear from neighbouring adults that they are “over-smart”, “spoilt”, and a “disgrace to the community who have forgotten their culture”. Yet, their work continues.
The obvious differences between the two girls seem to be this organised practice of leadership. However, Jhuma’s parents were themselves eager for her to complete her education and were genuinely proud of the work she was doing with the village. They believed in the basic right of all children to refuse marriage until they reach adulthood. Thus, a second difference emerges: Jhuma and Shayla’s parents had very different views on child marriage and adolescents’ freedoms. It may therefore be that girls who are allowed to become youth leaders are already the ones whose parents are progressive and believe in the importance of women’s education.
The role of youth leadership
There is clear value in teaching our youth the different forms of social injustices and the ways to navigate activism against these injustices. By allowing them to independently explore aspects of their rights and awareness of their sexual and reproductive health, the NGO promoted an ideology of respect for their evolving capacities.
Each youth leader we spoke to also showed an admirable sense of duty whenever they spoke of the impact they were trying to have. However, when youth leaders themselves face social stigma and emotional harm as they struggle against the social norms, there is a notable lack of organised support to ensure their safety. Additionally, by imposing responsibility on the adolescents themselves (who may not have any real power to convince adults in decision-making positions) to decrease child marriage in their society, are we not putting a heavy and unjustified burden of social change on these children?