Platforms for Dialogue’s (P4D) District Policy Forum (DPF) in Brahmanbaria chose to focus on the issue of child marriage. After the DPF formation and training programme in April of 2021, the DPF started its work. Among many other campaigns and activities, they held a capacity-building training on 12 September 2021, where they learned about the four key social accountability tools being promoted by P4D – the Citizen’s Charter (CC), Right to Information (RTI), National Integrity Strategy (NIS), and Grievance Redress System (GRS) – which are designed to strengthen civil society and government accountability mechanisms. Along with the issue of child marriage, P4D is working in 11 other districts on two additional issues: quality education and improving community clinics.
P4D district facilitator Khodeja Begum played an important role in forming the DPF, which is comprised of 20 members including teachers, journalists, and local government representatives. In keeping with the requirement to have at least one member from the local government, Brahmanbaria DPF has councillor Mrs Nilufa Yasmin as one of their members. They also chose Md Arzoo Miah as their president as he has previous experience working on such issues.
Child marriage is especially problematic in Brahmanbaria, which is why the DPF there chose to focus on this issue. Mohammad Mahbub Khan, a DPF member, indicated several reasons why child marriage is still so common in the district. He says, “fanaticism and lack of education are the main reasons behind this problem. In our district, we have people who are blindly obsessed with religion.” The ongoing pandemic also contributed to the shocking increase in child marriages. Many female students were married off during the lockdown. Vikarun Nessa, the Deputy Director (DD) of Women’s Affairs, Brahmanbaria, blames poverty as another reason behind child marriage. She says, “in many cases, migrants visiting their hometowns offer the guardians of young girls a lot of money in exchange for marriage. Sometimes when the girl’s father is a migrant worker, the mother is worried about her daughter’s safety. They cannot ensure maximum protection as they lack resources. Female children are continuously subjected to sexual harassment on their way to and from school or whenever they go outside. As a result, the family thinks it is best to marry her off.” Moreover, Vikarun Nessa says that no matter how much everyone tries, this problem will not easily dissipate until and unless the issue of poverty is addressed and resolved, at least to some extent.
Vikarun Nessa adds, “while the DPF’s initiatives are quite commendable on this front, it is still at the grassroots level.” She also agrees that among the more notable accomplishments, the registrars under the District Registrar of Marriage Office and all the Kazis (marriage officiants) formed an alliance and pledged not to endorse or allow child marriage. They also agreed that if they had any suspicions, they would immediately notify the authorities. The imams (Muslim religious leaders) from the local mosques also made a similar pledge, since many guardians marry off their daughters with only the blessing of a religious cleric, most often an imam.
All these concerns were raised in the DPF’s Dialogue Meeting, which was held on 16 November 2021. People from across the district, including DPF members, students, teachers, Chairmen, DD of Women’s Affairs, DD of Social Welfare, District Commissioner (DC) and the Additional District Commissioner (ADC) General, District Registrar of Marriage, Kazis, and priests were present in the meeting. After the meeting, the District Registrar and the President of the Kazi Association, Mohammad Yahiya, promised not to register any underage marriages.
In the public hearing, held on 28 December 2021, Mohammad Ayub Khan, a DPF member and headmaster of a girl’s school, recommended using the vaccine card to validate the birth certificate. It has become evident that many parents make fake birth certificates to show that their daughters are over 18 in order to marry them off. Since 1988, every child has been getting six vaccines right after birth. He suggested using these vaccine cards to avoid the problem of fake birth certificates.
Halima Murshed Kajol, a social worker and victim of child marriage herself shared her experience in the public hearing. She was married off when she was only a student in class six. Fortunately, her husband treated her well and supported her. Having successfully set up a business and put four children through school, Halima has recently gone back to school to complete her H.S.C. She has also provided free sewing training to women since 1995. Now, she has a thriving tailoring business with 35 workers. In the DPF meetings, she shared her story to encourage other women to prioritize their education before marriage. Additional issues such as corruption in the passport office and the quality of service at government hospitals were raised and discussed as well.
DPF President, Arzoo Miah, says that he is very hopeful about his forum’s work. They are working hard to sensitise people about the negative impacts of child marriage, promoting good governance, protesting inconsistencies in public services, and informing people of their rights. They believe child marriage is a major problem that needs to be addressed, and they hope that the project will bring great success if they can shift the focus of child marriage from the policy level to the local level. Arzoo Miah is planning to hold a meeting with all the Kazis of Brahmanbaria District and bring them all to the same understanding and stand against child marriage. He says,
“Even if the P4D project does not continue, the forum members and I will keep working to remove this curse from our society. I believe that if the citizens are aware enough, it is possible to significantly reduce the number of child marriages.”