Aung Chaw Mong, president of Bandarban District Policy Forum (DPF), received a phone call at around 9 p.m. on 11 December 2021. It was Eli, a staff member of the local NGO Anannya, calling to say that a 16-year-old Khyang girl in Gunguru Agapara, a village in Bandarban Sadar sub-district, was going to be married off despite being underage. The groom, who was also young teen, lived in the same village.
Chaw Mong promptly called the local police station. The officer in charge led the operation himself to stop the marriage ceremony. “The next morning, I organised a meeting, where the fathers of both the bride and the groom were present. I, along with my DPF members and other civil society members, informed them of the health risks and other dangers of child marriage,” said Mong. They listened to us and pledged to hold off the marriage till their son and daughter reached the legal age.
Photo: DPF President Aung Chaw Mong talking about the reason why their primary focus was to stop child marriage.
The District Policy Forum is Platforms for Dialogue’s (P4D) newest initiative that is working to strengthen civil society and government accountability mechanisms in Bangladesh using four key social accountability tools (SATs) – the Citizen’s Charter (CC), Right to Information (RTI), National Integrity Strategy (NIS), and Grievance Redress System (GRS). Funded by European Union in partnership with the Government of Bangladesh’s Cabinet Division, P4D has formed 12 DPFs in 12 districts focusing on three crucial issues – quality education, child marriage, and health care in community clinics. DPFs aim to bridge the gap between local government representatives and community leaders for a more collaborative and unified approach toward community development using the key SATs.
Chaw Mong, who is also the President of the District Anti-Corruption Committee, said their primary focus is to stop child marriage, which is common among the indigenous people living in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT). “This is what made us choose this issue to work on,” he said.
Talking about the Child Marriage Prevention Act, DPF secretary Lal Zar Lawm Bawm said that the CHT should have been given special focus in the Child Marriage Prevention Act 2017. “As far as I know, the Act did not consider the fact that there is no marriage registration system in different indigenous communities in the hill tracts,” said the secretary, who is also a religious leader in the Christian community. “However, the District Commissioner (DC) pledged to raise the issue in the DC conference which was going on at that time in Dhaka,” he added.
P4D District Facilitator, Mong Shenuk Marma, played a key role in forming the DPF, which is comprised of 20 members including teachers, journalists, lawyers, and local government representatives. The DPF members were selected among the representatives of district-based NGOs, CSOs, P4D partner CSO’s, or members from the Multi-Actor Partnership (MAP) groups, and other specific criteria. In keeping with the requirement to have at least one member from the local government, Bandarban DPF has one of the women Councillors, Dipika Rani Tangchangya, as its Vice President. Apart from her, the DPF has five other female members.
DPF president Chaw Mong said two parallel administrative structures posed further challenges.
“We work with the government officials, but there is also a King (Chief of the Bomang circle) here, who does not care about this issue at all. We’re trying to reach the King for his endorsement of the marriage registration system,”
said the DPF president.
Once the DPF was formed and it selected child marriage as its issue, the P4D District Facilitator along with the Regional Coordinator organised an online training for the DPF members. This 15-day training taught them about advocacy strategy and gave them a foundation to utilise online communications tools. Once they were trained, the Bandarban DPF began organising different events and celebrating several special days as part of their advocacy and awareness strategy. They went on to host a number of events to raise awareness about the SATs and how community members could benefit from them.
The DPF organised a public hearing in September, 2021 where citizens asked and quizzed public officials about services. One of the participants, Buddhijyoti Chakma, complained about the poor-quality of service at the District Land Office. Additional Deputy Commissioner (Revenue), Saiful Islam, promised to resolve the staff shortage, which will ultimately improve the quality as well as the speed of service delivery.
“In fact, the authority updated the system of the District Land Office record room. Now, it’s online and therefore, it’s hassle-free for service recipients including those living in hilly remote areas,” said DPF Secretary, Lal Zar Lawm Bawm.
Another DPF member, Usain Aung Marma, said, “in the policy dialogue meeting, we tried to make it clear to the DC that the government’s efforts to achieve the SDGs would be greatly hampered if child marriage is not contained and the marriage registration is not made obligatory for indigenous people in this district.” Usain said that the DC pledged to take necessary measures to strengthen child marriage prevention committees in the unions.
Following the DPF campaign, schools have begun sending out anti-child marriage messages to guardians. Bandarban High School headteacher, Deepti Kona Dey, said, “I shared the messages I received from the DPF events with my students.” High school students themselves are becoming aware of the dangers of child marriage. “Recently, I heard about an interesting incident. A mother of one of my students told me that her daughter threatened to get her arrested if she tried to arrange her marriage before she turned 18,” said the teacher. Deepti’s sister Smriti Kona Dey, the Headteacher of Bandarban Girls’ High School, also shared the hotline numbers dedicated to preventing child marriage with her students.
Photo: DPF member Usain Aung Marma asserting how DC pledged to take necessary measures to strengthen the child marriage prevention committees in the unions.
Social Welfare Deputy Director, Milton Muhuri, said the DPF’s efforts would bear fruits soon since it brought teenagers, their guardians, civil society members, and most importantly, local government officials, to a single platform.
He said, “we consider child marriage a sort of child abuse. We have a toll-free number – 1098. We use it to prevent this type of abuse.”
Although the issue of child marriage is both sensitive and challenging in the CHT, the District Policy Forum’s campaigns have shown promise to knock on the right doors and ensure collaboration from all relevant parties, including families, community social workers, and local government representatives.
The DPF members look forward to working more closely with the local community, teachers, students, and their guardians to realise their dream of making Bandarban a district free of child marriage in the near future.