The pandemic has pushed up the numbers of child marriage taking place in the country, but the work done by 16-year-old Dola and her compatriots under World Vision’s National Youth Forum give reason for hope
It was sometime in 2016 or 2017, and Dola Akter Reba was just a schoolgirl back then.
But she was already a part of World Vision's National Youth Forum, a platform for youth activists.
A friend had called her up to let her know about a child marriage which was taking place in Mohammadpur of the capital.
"I knew the young girl was not ready for marriage. Her face was swollen from crying a lot and she looked miserable. She was still crying when we saw her," said Dola.
As soon as Dola and her team reached the venue, along with police officers from the local police station, they were met with strong opposition from the neighbours and the bride's family members.
"At one point, I thought the mob was going to attack us. I got frightened. But I just kept on requesting the mother to talk to me. Somehow, I felt she would listen," she said about the experience.
Eventually, the mother listened to Dola, and she spoke to the father in turn and the marriage was stopped.
I knew if I could convince the mother, I would be able to do something. When mothers understand what is best for their daughters, everything becomes easier
With a confident tone, the 16-year-old said, "I knew if I could convince the mother, I would be able to do something. When mothers understand what is best for their daughters, everything becomes easier."
In the last two years, Dola and her fellow activists who work in Mohammadpur, Adabar, and Sher-e-Bangla stopped around 600 child marriages from taking place.
Child marriage in Bangladesh is a problem which the authorities have been trying to battle for decades.
There has been some progress, but there is still a long way to go before significant changes happen.
Girls Not Brides said that according to the United Nations Children's Fund (Unicef), Bangladesh has the second highest number of absolute child brides – 4,451,000.
More than 50% of women in the country who are now in their mid-20s were married before they turned 18. Almost 18% were below the age of 15.
The pandemic has pushed up the numbers, as the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) estimated that there would be 13 million more child marriages by 2030 because of it.
Rights organisation Manusher Jonno Foundation (MJF) carried out a telephonic survey of more than 57,000 women and children, which revealed that this year in June, 462 child marriages occurred in 53 districts. During the same period, 207 child marriages were prevented.
The number of child marriages was 170 in May, thus indicating a sharp rise in June.
The survey also found out that parents, grandparents, relatives and even local elites were involved in arranging these child marriages.
Despite the barriers, Dola and youth activists like her have vowed to eliminate child marriage and will keep working against countless barriers.
The National Youth Forum of World Vision has hundreds of activists, working all around Bangladesh on issues such as child rights, child protection, and violence against children.
It is that simple – these young boys and girls are driven by their wish to do something for their country. They rarely want accolades.
World Vision regularly provides trainings and workshops for the child forum members, and also monitors the work.
Regular meetings are held where details of every activity are submitted and then reviewed.
Technical Programme Director of World Vision, Tony Michael Gomes, said that child and youth forums play the role of watchdogs in the society.
At the same time, these young people get to learn and improve their knowledge, and become empowered.
"The forums are non-political platforms for our youths to voice their opinion and take actions against issues such as child marriage and violence. Our schools and colleges rarely teach these things to children. There are many others like Dola who are working to bring changes to our society," he said.
Our youth forum provides them the space where they can openly talk about the negative sides of the society such as child marriage. They also get to talk about their hopes and dreams
He opined, "Children begin to comprehend things from a young age. They understand violence and politics, and what a society is. Our youth forum provides them the space where they can openly talk about the negative sides of the society such as child marriage. They also get to talk about their hopes and dreams."
It was not easy for Dola to get her parents' approval and choose a life different than that of her sisters or friends.
In fact, when she was barely 12 years old, neighbours were telling her mother to marry her off.
"Neighbours would come to my mother and tell her that her daughter was growing up. So, she should get a nice groom and marry her off. Otherwise, she will have to suffer," said Dola.
It took her some time to convince her mother that child marriage is a terrible thing, especially because her mother was married off when she was only 13.
She explained to her mother that a child is not physically or mentally fit for marriage, let alone become pregnant.
Now her parents understand and respect their daughter's work. Her sisters are also supportive. Teachers at her college call her a role model, and her classmates, too, are helpful.
We asked her about her 2019 visit to the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland on the occasion of the International Day of the Girl Child.
Dola was selected among ten other youth leaders to represent Bangladesh and speak on child marriage and gender equality.
The experience was life changing for her. "In Geneva, I saw women walking around all by themselves, without anybody looking at them or bothering them in any way. I was enthralled by how independent those women looked."
She added, "You cannot cage girls like birds, they should be able to roam freely."
You cannot cage girls like birds, they should be able to roam freely
Although she is a teenager, Dola does not speak like one. Every word she utters is with utmost clarity and sincerity.
But like most young individuals, social media comments get to her at times.
"When I see some people supporting child marriage on social media, and saying things like how young girls are better when they are married off, I get upset. But no matter what, I will continue to work against child marriage."
The young girl mentioned at the beginning, whose marriage Dola and her colleagues stopped, is still in touch with Dola.
Her parents seemed to have kept the promise of not marrying off their daughter before she is of an appropriate age.
For someone who is so young and so dedicated in changing the lives of young girls like her, surely, she must have some dreams of her own?
To this, she replied, "I would like to become a journalist in future. That is my wish."