According to the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), Bangladesh has the second highest number of child brides in the world – 4,451,000. More than 50 percent of women in the country who are now in their mid 20s were married before they turned 18. Almost 18 percent of them were below the age of 15.
In 2013, Bangladesh enacted new legislation for the benefit of its estimated 70 million children, the Children Act, 2013, officially known as the "Shishu Ain, 2013", stating that it was enacted for the purpose of implementing the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), 1990.
In accordance with the National Children Policy 2011, National Children Act 2013 and UNCRC 1990, National Child Forum (NCF) of World Vision Bangladesh (WVB), has been working tirelessly to campaign against child marriages among various other issues across the country. With the motto, "Shishu Odhikar Nishchit Korbo, Shishubandhob Prithibi Gorbo" (We will ensure children's rights, we will build a child-friendly world), NCF is an organisation for children by children, which aims to ensure children's rights in every sphere, guaranteeing child safety and promoting positive leadership.
The main objectives of the forum include campaigning against child marriages, promoting children's participation in different spheres, protecting every child's right against violence and negligence, empowering children to participate as change agents, encouraging networking and collaboration among children and creating ways to establish children's rights.
With the help of World Vision, an international humanitarian aid organisation, several child forums were established in different upazilas of Bangladesh, over the years. Later, selected representatives from these forums came together to form the first ever National Child Forum in 2016.
"The aim of NCF is to prove that children are masters of their destiny and they have the power to create positive changes," shares Strala Rupa Mollick, Sr Technical Programme Manager, Child Protection and Participation, WVB. "We believe children's participation is not only about asking them to express their ideas and views but also about listening to them, taking them seriously and turning their ideas and suggestions into reality."
"World Vision has been working in Bangladesh since the nation's independence and NCF is a huge achievement for us. We successfully established and supported an organisation that is run by children," shares Tony Michael Gomes, Communication, Advocacy and External Director, WVB.
Under the leadership of current President Apurba Chandra Sarker and General Secretary Dola Akter Reba, NCF now operates in eight divisions across the country. Their executive board election takes place every two years. NCF volunteers work in 54 upazilas under 24 districts, including Barishal, Rajshahi, Joypurhat, Bagerhat, Rangpur, Dhaka, Sylhet, Chattogram, and Mymensingh among others. Currently, there are 2,100 child forums across the country with more than 80 thousand members. Under NCF, there are regional/divisional forum, district forum, upazila forum, union forum and village/ward forum. All the forums are led by children from local areas, who are 18 or younger.
With a clear aim to protect the rights of every child in the country, NCF works to eradicate child marriages, along with other child safety issues. Prevention of child labour and stopping all kinds of violence against children are one of the primary goals of the forum. Advocating for children, setting child friendly help desks in every station, communicating and arranging dialogues with national and local government officials, arranging workshops, training sessions and emergency crisis management initiatives are primary tasks of every forum member. NCF members are involved in the national budget planning each year as well, sharing their ideas on budget funds and where to allocate them to best fit the needs of every child.
NCF's biggest recognition comes from their continuous campaign against child marriages. In the last two years, members of the forum successfully stopped more than 800 child marriages across Bangladesh. Though their activities were postponed at large during the ongoing pandemic, their activists stopped more than 200 child marriages in the last few months.
"Initially, the locals were reluctant to listen to us. They used to ignore and threaten us, because we are children," shares Apurba, President, NCF. "But now that everyone knows about our work, things are easier because we have the support of local authorities. We have been working continuously, and people can no longer ignore us."
According to the National Child Act, 2013, there must be a child help desk in every police station. "Our station did not have any child help desk. We initiated awareness campaigns with the locals, discussed it with police authorities and now, we have a child help desk," shares Roma Bormon, representative from Kaharole, Dinajpur. "I used to be very shy when talking in front of people, but working for the child forum has made me more confident, more aware of my rights and how to fight for them."
The members faced setbacks initially. Fortunately, now, their expansion, government's toll free number and connections with the local police force has made everything much easier for them.
"Most destitute families want to marry off their daughters, because they can't afford to pay for their education," says Apurba. "We have connections with local school teachers, we talk to them about these problems and they help the struggling parents with their financial burdens."
By promoting active leadership among children, NCF's forums across Bangladesh help them develop essential skills. With World Vision's help, NCF reaches remote parts of the country to arrange various workshops, life skills-based training, and disaster management training programmes. WVB provides necessary financial support and skilled trainers for each workshop.
With the campaign, "Amie Pari Shishuder Proti Sokol Prokar Shohingshota Protirodh Korte" (I can prevent all forms of violence against children), more than 2, 60,000 people were made aware about the dangerous implications of violence against children. Hundreds of child labour victims were sent back to school after NCF's successful campaigns against child labour in several districts.
NCF has successfully collaborated with the Ministry of Women and Children Affairs, National Children Task Force, UNICEF, various government organisations and local authorities.
Over the years, their members declared 17,500 households as 'child violence free' across the country. Currently, their members are working to ensure violence- free education in various educational institutes as well.
NCF members also participate in different surveys regularly and several of them were internationally recognised for their work. Akhi, a girl who was rescued from hazardous child labour, was recognised as 'Real Life Hero' from the United Nations, for making masks during the pandemic.
NCF's General Secretary Dola Akter Reba has been involved with the organisation since 2014, when she was just 10 years old. Dola was shocked to find out that her mother was married at 13, and never truly had a childhood. "Growing up without a childhood because she was married is something I could not fathom," expresses Dola. Since then, Dola was determined to stop child marriages and established herself as a leader. In 2019, she visited the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, as a representative from Bangladesh.
NCF's quick response teams come forward during emergency crisis periods and volunteer in various humanitarian projects. During the pandemic, they distributed masks and soaps to 10,000 people and food packages to 200 families in need. They also participated in disinfecting mosques, teaching children proper hand washing guidelines, and setting up hand washing stations in several villages. More than 80,000 people were made aware of the coronavirus through their video messaging. The forum members plan to execute their next campaign, "Rainbow Showdown", to teach children about 'good touch' and 'bad touch', sexual abuse while staying at home during the pandemic as well as necessary measures to safeguard their mental health.
"We plan to establish a child forum in all 64 districts of Bangladesh and to connect NCF with international organisations in the near future," shares Apurba. "We want to declare several more districts and upazilas 'free of child marriage and child violence' in the next five years."
NCF members believe their biggest inspiration comes from the local people and children who support them in their fight. They are determined to work harder, with thousands of supporters rallying behind them.
The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) estimated that there would be 13 million more child marriages by 2030 because of the global pandemic. Bangladesh faces huge challenges in the future to prevent child marriages and it can only be possible if the government worked with organisations like NCF, hand in hand, to create better and brighter futures for children.
The author is a night owl who likes binge-watching, reading, and writing. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.