In the thick of news about forced child marriages across the country, the emergence of resistance groups comprising teenage girls comes as a ray of hope. These days, child marriages are blighted by scores of distressing incidents. Suicides committed by distraught girls dominate them. In accordance with the retrogressive nature of the practice, the incidents chiefly take place in the backward rural areas of the country. At a time when the so-called guardians of the village life find it convenient to look the other way when school-going girls are being married off, the all-girl group heartens lots of people. These child marriage resistance groups are pioneered by one based at a girls high school in Nandail upazila under Mymensingh district. The group, a front to be precise, has seven girls as members, who are studying at the school --- four in class-VIII with three in class-IX. Patronised by their headmaster and supported by a non-government organisation (NGO), the group gets stronger and assertive as their activities spread to areas beyond their village confines.
Called Ghashphool (grass-flower), the Nandail social organisation has rescued four girls from being married off. They have also whistle-blown on a child marriage forced on the parents by a village arbitration council. Local administration officials promptly stopped the wedding. A review of the activities of Ghashphool presents it as one spearheading a revolution of sorts in the essentially passive and tradition-bound rural society in Bangladesh. To speak pithily, the girls have created a great stir in the normally placid rural society. Although sparking disapproval among the obscurant sections, they have been able to earn plaudits of the general people. After all, the country's villages have for some time been passing through transformation in attitudes and thoughts. A lot of people now attach great value to the completion of girls' secondary school education. This requires them to extend the age of the girls' marriage by a few years. However, the age-old practice of marrying off girls between 14 and 16 still rules the roost in villages. The country's parliament has recently enacted the Child Marriage Restraint Act 2017 fixing the minimum age of marriage for girls at 18 and for boys at 21. It keeps the provision of 'special cases' for under-18 marriage of girls for their 'best interest'.
The all-girl Ghashphool squad has apparently vowed to stop marriage of teenage girls in their locality and the neighbouring villages. That following in their step, other such groups will appear in the far-flung villages is a foregone conclusion. Apart from preventing child marriage, these groups come up to resist eve-teasing and report the cases of these incidents to local-government leaders and the administration. As days roll on, Ghashphool and such other organisations are fast becoming a formidable force in the country's rural scenario.
Like in many tradition-centric societies around the world, Bangladesh is beset with its entrenched practice of marrying off girls when they hardly cross their teenage years. However, it appears as a relief that the ancient practice of forcing pre-puberty girls into the wedlock has almost been abolished. Yet few under-18 village girls can manage to escape the noose of marriage. Against this backdrop, the dauntless 7-member Ghashphool has made a great difference by being committed to resisting child marriage.
Prior to the start of activities by Ghashphool, isolated attempts at individual level have played a significant role in obstructing child marriage. Foremost of these initiatives is the one taken by Sharmeen Akter from a village in the Jhalakathi district. The girl, who appeared in the Secondary School Certificate (SSC) examination this year, was about to be married off by her mother. She stood up in protest, as she wanted to pursue her studies further. On her appeal, the local administration intervened and stopped the forceful marriage. The news of Sharmeen's resistance to her own marriage has provoked an outcry in the local media that dubbed her a bold young girl. On March 29, she was honoured with the Secretary of State's International Women of Courage Award in the USA. It was introduced in 2007. So far 100 women from over 60 countries have received this prestigious award.
The coveted award in a way has formally recognised the attempts of under-age Bangladeshi girls to resist child marriage. Moreover, the award is expected to work as a fillip to different all-girl movements in the country against injustices and oppressions inflicted on them. By being honoured with the award, Sharmeen appears to the girls in general as a strong voice of courage. Perhaps she is now aware of her new role as a trusted leader and guide to all the school-going vulnerable girls. Thus it was not surprising for the girl to sound highly emboldened and spirited at a Dhaka press meet upon her return from the USA. "Girls should not think they are helpless, they must seek help from the local police and their classmates to stop child marriage," Sharmeen told the meet. Moreover, she now believes that in the act of preventing child marriage those involved in the evil practice should be punished. She hopes local-government leaders and the administration will come forward to rescue the girls in distress. This is also what has happened with the Ghashphool members. In their daring missions, the school girls have found the Union Parishad chairmen and members quite eager to cooperate with them. The local police personnel have also stood by them unhesitatingly.
In step with the changed times and outlook, the world of school-going girls in the country has undergone radical changes. Perhaps those days are over when premature girls used to give in silently to the pressure of parents to be married off. Their studies and future careers were of little value to the family elders. In cases, they would enter into wedlock with persons three times older. Thanks to the unremitting campaigns and advocacy works of the rights groups, people in the rural areas are fast being made aware of the demerits of child marriage. The government programmes to boost girls' education through different incentives have also encouraged parents to delay the girls' marriage. The luckier ones nowadays even get the previously unimaginable opportunities to enrol on the universities. Still, the flipside remains stuck in society.
Due to the pervasive influence of the traditional mindset accustomed to view women as dumb housewives, a rural girl's education is attached less importance than that of the boys. Gender discrimination is widely in place in the rural communities. It eventually results in forcing a premature girl into the bondage of marriage. This is how the rural girls are made to be deprived of their carefree childhood. Early marriage also exposes them to scores of illnesses, as well as physical and psychological traumas. In short, an ever-jolly and sparkling girl is doomed on the very day her guardians tie her knot with a complete stranger.
Hopefully, the encouraging developments will not regress to the prejudiced times. In Bangladesh, the baggage of tradition is fast losing relevance. Ghashphool and other organisations, along with individual women achievers, have helped open the path to a new future for ill-starred girls.
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