The teen activists who have stopped hundreds of child marriages in Bangladesh

Around the world, millions of underage girls are forced into marriages, and the practice is only predicted to increase during the COVID-19 pandemic. Here, SBS News hears from those working to stop it.

Dola Akter Reba

Dola Akter Reba's mum was married when she was 13. Source: World Vision

When Dola Akter Reba was only 12, 'matchmakers' in the neighbourhood came knocking on her mother’s door, believing the young girl would make a good wife.

“Some of my neighbours did that kind of work and they came to my mum and told her ‘give your child for marriage, I know a very good boy who can marry your child',” she told SBS News from Bangladesh.

Her own mother was married when she was 13 to a man eight years her senior.

“I asked her to share her childhood memories but my mum was not able to share with me anything because she got married from a young age and from her childhood she had to manage a family,” Dola said. 

According to child rights advocates working in the country, Bangladesh has one of the highest child marriage rates in the world. More than half of the girls there are married before they turn 18, and 18 per cent before the age of 15.

The humanitarian aid organisation World Vision says being married so young can endanger a girl’s health, cut short their education, and increase the likelihood of them remaining in poverty. 

Girls gather outside their college in Dhaka, Bangladesh.
Source: NurPhoto/Getty Images

Affected by her mother’s lack of a childhood, Dola, now 16, is one of several young activists working with child rights advocates to educate parents about the harm that can be done to children if they are married off at a young age.

Dola joined World Vision, received some training, and has been part of a team of adults and children advocating for an end to violence against children.

She and her colleagues have stopped more than 600 child marriages in the past two years alone.

The charity uses donations to sponsor girls at risk around the world, including in Africa and Nepal. It says it has been working hand in hand with communities in Bangladesh to prevent child marriages by directly engaging with families through clubs and child forums, and training them and their parents to be proactive in stopping the practice.

Dola 16, is working to protect other girls in Bangladesh.
Source: World Vision

“When young people are working in these clubs, it also helps to track what is happening with young people in their community,” said Mercy Jumo, senior policy advisor on child rights, policy and advocacy at World Vision Australia.

“It’s like an early warning system that helps track school attendance and then helps school authorities - who are trained and have worked with World Vision and with faith leaders - to be able to see that there is something wrong in the life of this child. Or that they are missing from school and go to their home to find out where [they are].”

Dola has also been a member of the World Vision Child Forums since she was 10 and is now part of the leadership team. Last year she visited the United Nations in Geneva to speak on behalf of girls in her home country and share the success of her work. 

“The Child Forum is working hard to stop child marriage and we have been successful, but there are too many additional things needed to protect girls,” she said.

“We, as children, engage in actions to end child marriage because we know other children’s pain and how much they suffer. When a child gets married under the age of 18, they face many challenges including increased risk of child and mother mortality, school dropout, domestic violence and abuse.”  

Dola speaking at the UN in Geneva.
Source: World Vision

Another young activist fighting to end child marriage is Hilal*. The 19-year-old lives in Bangladesh's capital Dhaka and has been on the front lines of the battle against child marriage since he was 12.

For him, the realisation of how it victimises children came when it happened to his sister. She was married off at almost 15 and became pregnant.

“Then after two years, her husband divorced her. Then she got sick and her baby was sick. She was a child ... How can anyone expect her to raise a child?" he said. 

She was a child ... How can anyone expect her to raise a child?

- Hilal

Hilal has been directly involved in stopping 19 child marriages, sometimes in dramatic circumstances. 

“I totalled 19 child marriages I stopped, where I attend physically, and I have been involved in stopping more than 50 others.”

Storming child marriages he is not invited to, sometimes accompanied by police officers, Hilal has faced dangerous situations, even within his own family.

“I was invited to my cousin’s wedding and when I saw the girl ... I noticed she is 15 years old. I asked her age and she said 18 but I didn’t believe. I asked for her birth certificate but she did not have.”

Hilal then confronted the government marriage registrar that was at the ceremony but says he was dismissed and abused by his family - his cousin beat him with a bamboo cane.

But he persevered, going to the district officer in charge of the village who stopped the wedding.

Child marriage is not only a problem in Bangladesh. Globally, 23 girls under 18 are married every minute and over the next decade, 13 million child marriages are forecast due to the economic impacts of COVID-19, according to the United Nations Family Planning Association.

Countries with the highest rates of child marriage.
Source: World Vision

Those in impoverished areas are becoming more desperate than ever before and are resorting to giving up their daughters, some as young as 10, for marriage.

“COVID-19 is increasing and is likely to increase child marriage because of many interconnected issues, one of them being the economic challenges that COVID-19 has brought,” Ms Jumo said.

“Livelihoods have been wiped out, people are not able to go about the business they did before to fend for their families. People are locked down in countries where they do not receive government support. So the only way some families feel that to get out of that situation is by marrying off."

“Parents feel that 'if we marry off the child and get the right price, at least we can buy bread today and take care of today’s expenses. 

"Then there are the gender norms; the traditional beliefs that some carry about the position of men and women in society. Some see that if you educate a girl, it is a waste of money, it is best to invest in a boy child because the girl child will be married off and will take that knowledge into another family and that is a waste of money.”

*Name has been changed

If you or someone you know is impacted by family or domestic violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit 1800RESPECT.org.au. In an emergency, call 000.


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Published 20 September 2020 at 6:49am
By Essam Al-Ghalib