‘This pandemic is showing that our community-led approach is working’

Jamir Islam is program coordinator of local Her Choice partner The Hunger Project Bangladesh. Committed to end child marriage in his country, Jamir tries to change people’s dependency mind-set. But is this still possible, in these COVID-times and how does he see the future? An interview with a hopeful man in difficult times: ‘Our trained volunteers all take responsibility to protect their own community.’

Are you still able to carry out your work during these times, and how has the pandemic changed this?

‘Life is difficult for a lot of people in Bangladesh. We don’t have a clear image of the current situation, because the government doesn’t have the resources to do a lot of testing. Because there are not a lot of confirmed cases, a large number of people, mostly poor and lower middle class, don’t take it very seriously. Others, however, are very anxious to get infected. The corona pandemic has deteriorated the child marriage situation. Since the onset of the pandemic, many people have lost their livelihoods, all educational institutes are closed, and the administration and social activists are currently playing passive roles. These factors increase the incidence of child marriages across the country.

We’re working from home since March and schools are closed since then. However, we were able to mobilize our community volunteers and their Village Development Teams (VDTs) to organize and empower the community to build ‘Corona Resilient Villages’ through a community-led approach. This approach promotes social cohesion and tolerance by preventing stigmatization of the victims of the virus and violence against women and children, help the most vulnerable segment of the population and create public awareness for handwashing, safe sanitation practices and maintaining social distancing.

Our Country Director, Badiul Alam Majumdar published several articles about our community-led approach and the Corona Resilient Villages in the prominent national newspaper The Daily. These articles are meant as an inspiration to others -the government in particular- to follow a community-led approach.’

How big is the problem of child marriage in Bangladesh and what are the main reasons according to you?

‘Child marriage is one of the major problems in Bangladesh. According to UNICEF, 59% of Bangladeshi girls are married by 18 years old and 22% are married before the age of 15. In rural areas, the incidence of child marriage is higher (70%) than urban areas (53%). Child marriage deprives girls of their basic human rights and endangers their lives and livelihood. It is harmful to girls’ health, restricts access to education, and earning opportunities. Child marriage in our society is rooted in gender inequality, culture and religious traditions, poverty, family honor, and a low level of education.

A lot has to do with cultural and social norms that are fostering child marriage, but also with corrupted authorities. For example, the tampering of age by local government authorities and fake marriage registration by marriage registers who take bribes, only increase child marriage. Late marriage registration and absence of judicial punishment also encourages child marriage. And because of the current strong Child Marriage Act, many child marriages occur without marriage registration, which makes girls very vulnerable. Therefore, a strong civil society is needed to hold the authorities accountable, but also a responsible government that enforces the law.

A lot of people in Bangladesh are too dependent on the government, NGOs or on donors for their community development. I see a lack of social responsibility and sense of citizenship among people in our community. We try to change this mindset and try to convince them to take the initiative to be able to change and empower their community themselves. We mobilize people so that they can be the author of their own development.’

What aspect of the Her Choice programme is the most powerful to help tackle child marriage, and why?

‘There was the flexibility to design the country-specific program considering the country context under the guidance of the Her Choice Alliance. Also, we could incorporate learnings from the Linking & Learning workshops in our Annual Planning Cycle and modify the program where needed.

But the community itself created the biggest impact. Besides the girls and boys in youth clubs (who we trained in advocacy and leadership skills), the school teachers and school management committees, there are also the VDT’s, formed with trained volunteers and animators, representatives of self-help groups, opinion makers, village leaders, and women leaders. All these people helped create a social movement to build a child marriage-free community.’

What are you most proud of? 

‘First of all, I feel proud to be part of the Her Choice alliance as coordinator to lead the Her Choice program in Bangladesh, to be part of creating a movement for a child marriage free Bangladesh, and finally a child marriage free world. But I’m most proud of working with thousands of girls and boys of 208 secondary schools who are producing incredible results in making safe schools for girls.

I think the Her Choice programme has been producing tremendous results in reducing child marriage, keeping girls in school, and improving their access to SRHR. Her Choice is empowering girls and their communities to build child marriage free communities and create an enabling environment for girls where they can make a difference. In the midline study, it shows that progress is being made. Also in our working areas, we see a decreasing trend in child marriage.

The corona pandemic is showing that our community-led approach is working. Our trained volunteers all take responsibility to protect their own community. They feel a sense of citizenship which makes them more confident and better able to help their community. They were actively carrying out the programme, kept contact with youth leaders and teachers and stopped six child marriages till today in their community during this pandemic. Also, they organized several online vocational trainings and peer education trainings.’

Have you personally ever had to deal with the phenomenon of child marriage?

‘Three of my four sisters were married before they turned 18 years. At that time -in the beginning of the 80’s- I thought that was the normal thing to do, like everybody else in my surroundings. I was the only one of the family who could finish high school and go to university. The scope of the girl’s education was very limited at that time; patriarchy was very strong. No voices against it were anywhere and the legal framework was very weak. Only one of my sisters, the youngest, was able to pass a Bachelor Degree in Arts, something I encouraged a lot.

It was only in 2004 when I started working with The Hunger Project Bangladesh and I followed a gender and development training, I got a different view on women and women’s rights. For my sisters it was too late: they’re totally dependent on their husbands and all have several children. Only the sister who studied, has a job now. Education made a big difference for her.’  

Do you have hopes for the future in being able to tackle child marriage in the future?

‘Engaging girls and boys through school youth clubs is one of the innovative elements of our Her Choice program and definitely is going to last. Along with this, SRHRs’ training, peer educators and self-help groups are also innovative elements of our interventions. These elements have already been incorporated with THP’s flagship program ‘SDG Union Strategy’. Fighting against child marriage is one of the core thematic areas of The Hunger Project Bangladesh. So, we will continue to combat against child marriage and promote girls’ rights at both community and national levels at all time. Hence, whenever we design any project, we include the child marriage component in it.

If we want to have a better future for the girls in Bangladesh, and we want to have an inclusive society, national and international collaboration is crucial. Only when we work together on the same agenda and share our experiences and lessons learned, we can create pressure on the government to really work on women’s rights. We’ve seen now that our approach works: if we empower girls, they can take decision themselves and dare to stand up to their men and families so that they can lead healthier and happier lives and give their children a better future.’