The U.N. children’s agency, UNICEF, estimates more than 650 million women alive today were married before the age of 18. Even in countries where there are laws to prevent child marriage — like Bangladesh — the practice can be deeply rooted in culture and largely accepted in society. Laws are rarely enforced, and children are often allowed to marry as long as there is parental consent, regardless of their age.
But the practice is devastating: Early marriage can significantly impact a girl’s ability to continue with her education. Many girls are forced to drop out in order to focus on domestic responsibilities or to raise children of their own.
“I said to my parents, ‘Right now, I don’t want to get married. I have a long life and a dream in front of me.’”
But as children themselves, they are not physically and emotionally prepared to become mothers. Teen moms and their babies are both at a higher risk of dying in childbirth. In fact, complications in pregnancy and childbirth are the leading cause of death globally among adolescent girls ages 15 to 19.
And while poverty is often a key factor that leads to child marriage, it’s also an ongoing consequence. Robbed of the chance to grow, learn, and fully realize their potential, child brides are disempowered. Without an education, they’re unable to end the cycle of poverty for themselves or their family.
Eka speaks out against child marriage
These are all things that Eka, 14, learned when she was selected to participate in a life skills education class at her school in Khona village in southwest Bangladesh.
The class is put on by Nobo Jatra, a five-year program implemented by World Vision and funded by USAID. During the class sessions, 20 students – 10 boys and 10 girls – are taught leadership and communication skills, as well as the dangers of child marriage.
So when Eka’s parents began to arrange a marriage for her to a man at least 20 years older than her, she was equipped to say no.
“I raised my voice against it,” says Eka. “I said to my parents, ‘Right now, I don’t want to get married. I have a long life and a dream in front of me.’”
Her parents resisted initially, but the communication skills and child marriage data that Eka had learned helped her succeed.
“Again and again, I tried to make them understand,” she says. “I want to be something in my life. I want to help my parents, too. And I was able to convince them!”
But Eka’s story doesn’t end there: Shortly thereafter, Eka’s 14-year-old cousin learned that her parents were arranging her marriage. However, Eka successfully convinced her cousin’s parents to decide against the marriage. Both she and her cousin remain in school.
“I felt so good that I could stop the marriages,” Eka says. She’s committed to staying in school and studying well. Now she hopes to be a lawyer one day, so she can continue to fight against child marriage.
The future for girls in Bangladesh
The Nobo Jatra program has directly intervened to stop 175 child marriages since the program began in 2015. But stories like Eka’s are considered indirect interventions – they’re not even included in that larger total. To make sure children can benefit from this program long after Nobo Jatra has ended, World Vision is working with Bangladesh’s Department of Education to ensure the sessions are incorporated as part of standard curriculum in the future.
Currently, Nobo Jatra’s life skills education course is in 142 schools – all with their own incredible stories of students who used the communication and leadership skills they gained to transform their own lives for the better.
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Foreign assistance — for about 1 percent of the total U.S. budget — supports programs like Nobo Jatra that empower women, promote health and nutrition, and help communities lift themselves out of poverty. Your voice helps these programs continue for girls like Eka!
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Top photo: Eka Sarkar (14) © 2019 World Vision, Jon Warren