Leaving nobody behind
By Kate Shaw, Social Media Communities Manager, World Vision UK
In a meeting a month ago we decided to run a series capping off Action/2015, and explaining individually what the campaign meant to us. And one of the people in the campaign group was, well, me.
When I first volunteered to write a blog ahead of the UN conference this weekend, my first thought was child marriage in Bangladesh. We unfortunately see too many stories about children tricked or forced into early marriage from our offices in the field.
In school one of my closest friends was Bengali, and even though we were growing up in suburban, middle class, Massachusetts, her parents still started to hassle her about arranged marriages by the time we were halfway through secondary school. By the time Upama was 17, her Mum would tell her - “when I was your age, I’d already been married and had you.”
Which obviously, isn’t great. Thankfully, Upama’s parents never actually finalized any weddings, and Upama went to university like the rest of us. But the fact that it was even suggested probably indicates something about the difficulty changing the culture of child marriage in Bangladesh and other countries.
In the ‘desh
Bangladesh has one of the highest rates of child marriage in the world, and the highest proportion of children married under the age of 15 in the world. There are laws there prohibiting the practice, but they are rarely enforced. In a country with the eighth largest population in the world, there are still an awful lot of stories like this.
World Vision is one of the many NGOs active in the country, working to change attitudes and help teach children about their rights, and thanks to a steady environment, and the commitment of our sponsors, we are able to run these programmes for long enough to see amazing stories of change.
16-year-old Nilanjona is one of the children who’s been helped, and she’s now using her experiences to spread change throughout her community. When she was in Year 9, about the same age as Upama when Nilanjona’s father started to look for a husband for her. He was struggling to provide for his daughter, and he thought she’d be better off married.
Nilanjona lives in Panchbibi community in Bangladesh, where we’ve been running a child sponsorship programme for 12 years. Thankfully, her father’s plans to get her married came just after her Mum had attended one of World Vision's training sessions for mothers, that teaches them about the dangers of early marriage to their daughters. In Nilanjona’s own words, “I know the result of early marriage is death.”
With Nilanjona and her mum both opposed to the marriage, they managed to convince her father to shelve the idea until Nilanjona has completed her education. She now hopes to become a doctor. What’s more, Nilanjona has taken her experiences and is using them to help teach other girls in her community about their rights. Every Thursday afternoon, she works with our staff in Panchbibi to run life skills sessions for other young girls. Her story gives you hope that even in this densely populated country where child marriage is so common, change is possible, and in Nilanjona’s case, spreading.
In stark contrast to Nilanjona and Upama was a video I received last week from a colleague in New Zealand. The video was an interview with a 14-year-old Syrian girl, Zeinab, who is now living in an informal tented settlement in Lebanon with her new husband. They were married at the New Year. “The situation in Syria is not good,” she tells the camera as rain drips through her tent. As the conflict escalated last year, her parents became frightened for her safety. They’ve stayed behind in Syria, but sent Zeinab to the relative safety of the camp. And they’ve married her to an older relative, because they think he’ll be able to keep her safe.
Safe...but unable to go to school, and with a childhood that has suddenly been truncated. Before the war broke out, Zeinab dreamed of becoming a painter. Now she looks forward to motherhood.
The UN and child marriage
Neither Upama and Nilanjona’s, nor Zeinab’s much more severe experiences, should ever happen. Child marriage is fairly widely accepted as something that shouldn’t happen (195 countries have signed the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which includes the right to remain unmarried until their eighteenth birthdays), but it’s something that continues to happen in the world today. Like children missing out on school because of conflict, child marriage has also fallen through the gaps of the Millennium Development Goals.
Don’t get me wrong, the goals have done great things. The number of deaths of children under five has declined from 12.7 million in 1990, to less than 6 million in 2015. More than two billion people who didn’t before, now have access to clean water and sanitation. But children like Zeinab, affected by conflict and living in an environment where child marriage is commonly practiced, have been left behind.
A new set of goals to work to
“I was comfortable and happy in Syria because our country is heaven,” Zeinab told us, “but when war started, it was destroyed."
This weekend, world leaders are meeting at the UN in New York to agree to a new set of global goals that charities and governments together will be focussing on for the next fifteen years. Upama has already escaped the child marriage loop her parents were in, by location as much as anything else. Nilanjona has been reached through our child sponsorship programmes, and is now reaching out in turn to her friends and peers. But conflict has plunged Zeinab from a well-educated future into the uncertainty of chid marriage.
The new Sustainable Development Goals aim to build a better world for people and planet and ensure that this time round, no one is left behind. This means children like Zeinab, as well as Nilanjona and Upama, will all have equal odds of a positive future, regardless of where they are in the world – something that is definitely something worth campaigning, lobbying, and Action/2015-ing for.
World Vision works on child protection issues, including ending early marriage, through our child sponsorship programmes and other projects. You can read more about our work in Syria or campaigning with Action/2015 here. Kate and the team regularly publish stories about child marriage, child sponsorship, the refugee crisis and many other topics on World Vision UK’s Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram accounts.