Sumaiya is a girl who you remember long after your encounter with her. Within minutes of meeting her, this bright girl, who gave me a cloth to wipe off the mud that I fell into whilst precariously balancing on a slanted gravel ledge to climb up from the makeshift monsoon pier of her rural village town in Dacope, at the coastal areas which border the Sunderbans, the largest mangrove forest in the world.
Within half an hour, Sumaiya had imparted the details of her life, which was affected by two disastrous cyclones in her youth, causing tidal waves and neighbours clambering into her parents house in the middle of the night, both in 2007 and 2009. What was most amazing to me was when she vocalized how she and her friends are part of a growing community of over 100,000 adolescent females and males in Bangladesh, who work together to inform others in their community of child marriages, child labor. They have been taught to do thus by other community members, who volunteer to teach young children about such issues.
One of the key lessons I found out about working on critical issues such as child marriage, during my short stint with UNICEF, is that there is no way to stop it unless you involve all factions of the society about it. Sumaiya and her friends were the recipients of redoubled aid after the occurrence of hurricane Aila and Sidr, in 2007 and 2009 respectively. Community gatherings were set up as a concerted effort in these communities to connect the gaps between reportage about child marriage, with the very real task of penetrating the most vulnerable and least knowledgable members of rural communities: women themselves.
Speaking with Sumaiya was refreshing. She brought home the fact for me that women are able and willing to make a change if given the opportunity to learn. She was scores of women- and one of 0ver 135,000 adolescents that UNICEF has targeted through their youth empowerment projects in Bangladesh.
Sumaiya provided some illuminating insights into her inspirations, one that any of us can learn from, who need any convincing of the need to target women’s education directly through organized and centralized campaigns at the localized village level in developing nations worldwide. I’ve long been an advocate of capacity building projects in rural spaces, but I was most convinced of this when speaking with Sumaiya.
“I want to become a leader for women, and I would like to be able to talk to someone who can help me along,” Sumaiya told me.
“What makes you want to work specifically with women?” I asked her.
“In the villages around here, a girl’s marriage is usually fixed to a man who is twice or thrice her age, often someone with some more wealth than the girl’s family. She might even be as young as eight years old when this happens. If you try to break of the marriages, the fathers steal their daughters away in the middle of the night and perform the ceremonies with priests who are narrow-minded, and overlook how young the girl looks.”
“What have you learned about the knowledge you gained?”
“I went to Khulna for a conference that was organized by a local NGO. It was a group of us from the village, and when we arrived, I was afraid to speak in front of so many people. But when I did, some of them were surprised that there were so many young girls in our villages who were being married off so young. It was amazing to realize how many people agreed, as a whole, how bad things was for us. It helped me feel more confident about bringing back these messages to the community.”
Photograph Courtesy UNICEF/Shafiqul Alam Kiron