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Ending the spectre of child marriage ■ Kanwal Ahluwalia at cross-legged in her village home in rural Bangladesh, Sabrina spoke with a steely grit that defied her 17 years. “At home no-one listens to a child, but when we work together people listen,” she enthused, reminding me how resilient young women can be, even when faced with crushing adversity. Sabrina was one of a group of young girls who have been trained by global children’s charity Plan UK to act as advocates in their communities against the spectre of child marriage. As Plan’s Gender Advisor, I was lucky enough to visit a project in Bangladesh recently to support their work to end this violent violation of women and girls’ rights. Sabrina’s group works together to influence their parents and communities about the causes and negative consequences of child marriage. Preventing violence against women and girls has been central to me since I first started working in international development some 18 years ago. Violence comes in many forms and one form is child marriage, where girls are married off before the age of 18, often without consent. This is a fundamental breach of human rights – girls are usually forced out of education and the potential for gaining the skills for a job. They are married to men, often much older than them, limiting their ability to have a say in their new households. These young girls can face the threat of violence because of the unequal power relations between them, their husbands and their new families. Many girls face pressure to have children before they are biologically or psychologically ready.The reasons for child marriage are complex and vary hugely from area to area. In Bangladesh, more than two-thirds of girls are married before they are 18. More than one in ten of married young women give birth to their first child before the age of 15. Certain factors make child marriage more likely to happen – prevailing discrimination against girls, driving poverty, the pressure of conflict and natural disasters. Blaming the parents is easy but actually many of them feel that marriage is a way to ‘protect’ girls ensuring that they avoid premarital sex and bringing shame to their families. So, child marriage is, at its core, wrapped up in beliefs about the role of girls and women in society as well as ideas about


Kanwal Ahluwalia, Plan UK’s Gender Advisor


Asian Voice & Gujarat Samachar - 2013

women’s sexuality and wider freedoms about choice and decision-making. Plan’s work in rural Bangladesh is a holistic programme to tackle the different drivers behind child marriage. It includes supporting girls to feel more able to discuss child marriage issues with their parents, talking to communities about the importance of girls’ rights and gender equality, as well as helping parents to access government school stipends to encourage them to send their girls to school. We work with government officials to prevent child marriage, including ensuring girls’ births are registered to provide documentation of their age; and working with other local organisations to lobby for stronger laws to protect girls. Slowly but steadily, attitudes towards girls are changing. When once parents would hold competitions about how young they could marry off their daughters and reduce the costs of dowries as a result, now they work together to prevent child marriages taking place in their villages. And this grassroots work is not confined to Bangladesh. In India, Pakistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka and across Asia Plan is seeing success with this approach. This is something Plan does In India, Bangladesh and across Asia, supporting girls in communities to help fulfil their own potential. We have seen huge strides in the emancipation of women in recent years and nowhere better demonstrates how far we have come and yet the distance still to travel than India, from where my family originate. In a country with three times as many billionaires as the UK, and two of the world’s richest women, tradition and progress clash daily, often with tragic consequences. The highly publicised gang rape and murder of a young woman on a bus in Delhi earlier this year was yet another reminder of the lower status afforded to women and girls and the general acceptability of violence towards women. A global outcry, by women and men, many of them young who have had enough of staying silent, was testament to the power of people coming together to make a stand. This mass mobilisation is key to ensure Sabrina and millions of other girls across Asia get the support they need to fulfil their own potential. To f ind out more visit

Profile for Asian Business Publications Ltd

BAW 15th July 2013  

British Asian Women - Breaking Boundaries

BAW 15th July 2013  

British Asian Women - Breaking Boundaries

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