Empowering and educating adolescent girls who were married off before they turned 18 is crucial to ensuring that they can build a future for themselves and thrive
On Wednesday, September 23, a webinar on the Initiatives for Married Adolescent Girls’ Empowerment (IMAGE) Plus project, supported by the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands was arranged by RedOrange Media and Communications alongside Terre des Hommes Netherlands in Bangladesh the lead organization, and implementing partners Terre des hommes Foundation, SKS Foundation and Pollisree. Dhaka Tribune was the media partner of the event, titled “IMAGE Plus Learning and Sharing Session with CSOs.”
Under the project, a total of 9,000 early-married girls have received quality services, including improved access to sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) including MCH, nutrition, along with basic and vocational education and livelihood opportunities as well as reduced Gender-Based Violence (GBV) in Nilphamari, Gaibandha and Kurigram.
Empowering and educating adolescent girls who were married off before they turned 18 is crucial to ensuring that they can build a future for themselves and thrive, speakers at the webinar said.
These girls are often left out of the decision-making process in their households and giving them a voice is an important part of making sure they do not feel left out of society, they added.
The beginning of this seminar was marked by a speech from moderator Arnob Chakraborty, managing director of Red Orange Media and Communications, on the topic of IMAGE plus. He shed light upon how the project started five years ago with the goal of standing beside the adolescent girls who were victims of early marriage.
Mahmudul Kabir, country director of Terre des Hommes Netherlands, Chaired the webinar as the representative of the project implementation consortium lead.
The respected panelists included Dr Noor Mohammad, executive director of PSTC, Humaira Aziz, director of the Women and Girls Empowerment Program at Care Bangladesh, and Monira Rahman, executive director of the Innovation for Wellbeing Foundation.
The learning and results from the IMAGE Plus intervention were shared by IMAGE Plus Project Director Farhana Jesmine Hasan in a detailed presentation. She illustrated how direct beneficiaries and their communities in the three project areas were transformed by IMAGE Plus initiative.
Nakib Rajib Ahmed, head of program of Red Orange Media and Communications, delivered a presentation on the project from the communications point of view. He explained the importance of communication strategy and materials to raise awareness among early married girls. He also emphasized how all the project activities were driven by one major force - communication.
Arnob Chakrabarty, managing director of RedOrange Media and Communications
There are many organizations working on ending child marriage, but what about the girls who were married off before they turned 18? It will take many years to put an end to child marriage. Every year, half a million of girls become victims of child marriage in Bangladesh. The IMAGE Plus project aims to give these girls a voice.
Mahmudul Kabir, country director of Terre Des Hommes Netherlands
IMAGE Plus project has shown us that if married adolescent girls get the right opportunities, they can thrive in life despite being a victim of child marriage. These girls have potential and this project helped them to use their potential for something productive. The most crucial part of their empowerment was to make them financially independent with the skills they have.
The project significantly contributed to early marriage prevention in the early-married girls’ families and in the community, and the adolescent girls and boys as changemakers played an important role in it. Some parents who married off their child early, realizing the suffering of early married children, expressed their regrets and decided not to repeat the same mistake in the lives of their other children. The project was designed in such a way that there was no scope to promote early marriage, rather it contributed to changing the mindset of community and society to prevent child marriage based on the evidence of the early married girls’ situations. Obviously, it is not easy to bring change to long-term social attitude and practices, but the project has proven that it is possible to a certain extent. It was not a service delivery project, but rather a behaviour change one; that was our concern from the sustainability point of view.
We should not forget these girls, because they are an important part of our society and can change their lives if provided with the right opportunities. Covid-19 is a major challenge for us, but these girls are coping very well. We are so proud to see the strength of these girls and how they pulled themselves out of the abyss. We believe the target groups - that is early-married girls, their families, changemakers - with the knowledge, information and increased practice on the issues, with the involvement and support of different stakeholders like CSOs and the government will contribute to bringing a sustainable change in the lives of early married girls and in child marriage prevention. We do not want to see any more marriages at early age.
Farhana Jesmine Hasan, Project Director of IMAGE Plus
IMAGE Plus in its second phase since 2014 has been focusing on the empowerment of early married girls, those married before the age of 18, in three northern districts of Bangladesh. There were two aims – First, to make the most neglected and invisible part of society, early married girls, acknowledged as part of the women and adolescent population in country; and second, to create evidence of bringing changes in the lives of targeted 9,000 early married girls for their empowerment for a dignified life, and to prevent child marriage throughout the process.
The girls were reached through an ecological model involving key actors and influencers, with a combination of different strategies to create an enabling environment for the empowerment of the girls in the field of SRHR, education, income generating activities (IGA) and fight against gender based violence (GBV). The 4 years of learning from the project with the 9,000 early married girls and families are shared with CSOs to disseminate the changes possible in knowledge and behavior, create evidence, best practices, challenges and major recommendations so that the learnings and the project materials can be utilized and contribute to any initiative ongoing or in the future related to early married girls and child marriage prevention.
Modassiruzzaman Milu, SKF Foundation
The project name, IMAGE, itself tells what to do for the empowerment of early married girls. The project’s four themes are appreciated by GO-NGO stakeholders. We found stakeholders from various levels involved and interested about the issues of the project and materials produced. School teachers use IMAGE Plus flip charts and other communication materials from us and arranged sessions, training on their own in schools and the community. Spouses took initiative to open a bKash account, mobilized funds and distributed sanitary napkins among the EMGs. The upazila level health & family welfare officials took over IMAGE Plus issues, especially SRHR, menstrual hygiene management and discussed them in their departmental regular meetings. Liaisons were established between the EMGs and health service providers, which will have a long term impact in the community.
We tried to educate the community about the risk of childbirth at home. A significant number of people in this project are now taking pregnant adolescent girls to health service providers for childbirth. Not only that, institutional delivery also increased by ensuring that they are identifying the panel of Rickshaw/Van within the community.
Motia Begum Mukty, Pollisree
The spouses of EMGs have been intensely involved in the project initiatives, which resulted in significant changes in cooperation and that is an important change. In our area, institutional delivery has been increased, and savings practices have been initiated through MA Bank for using as contingency fund during pregnancy and delivery. Within this project period, the birth spacing rate was satisfactory. Early marriage decreased within the community, as well as in the EMG’s paternal and in law’s families.
Through the sessions, EMGs became aware about gender-based violence and now can realize if they were being deprived of their rights and, in case of violence, abuse and exploitation, where to report. Awareness of mental wellbeing has made us realize psychosocial support is as important as physical support. I request donors and the government authorities, to explore and initiate new initiatives on mental wellbeing with accessible support services for the EMGs from grass root to district level.
Abdul Wadud, Tdh Foundation
We had a misconception that adolescent married girls have no potential to prepare themselves to do something for a living. This project linked EMGs in skill development training and income generating activities. As a result, they have gained access to income and created their control over that. As a result, they contributed to their family and improved their decision-making practice.
I think the IMAGE Plus project is a holistic approach to making early married girls empowered. The project developed a number of community changemakers, trained them as psycho-social first aiders and they are providing mental health support in person, physically and over phone. Family members, spouses, and mother in laws were actively involved with every intervention which brought a better result in short span of time. EMGs got access to upazila level government line divisions through the linkages of the project as a part of the project's sustainability. I suggest to involve them in future projects, as fathers-in-law are the ultimate or key decision makers in the families.
Dr Noor Mohammad, Executive Director of PSTC
This pandemic has halted the regular lives of people in Bangladesh for the last six months, but the people associated with IMAGE Plus project have worked tirelessly to reach the outcomes successfully. In most of the indicators related to SRHR, such as, family planning, maternal and child health care, there seems to have been significant improvement. I believe a significant number of adolescent girls still cannot make decisions about their lives, therefore the joint decisions of family planning shown as 80% among the married adolescent girls may raise questions. Areas like institutional delivery and male contraceptive usage need to be given more attention to improve the practice. The findings can be compared with national data.
PSTC has working experience with early married girls as part of its three projects and would like to propose a joint initiative in future with the IMAGE Plus experience on the issues of early married girls and child marriage prevention.
Humaira Aziz, Director, Women and Girls Empowerment Program, Care Bangladesh
Based on the experiences of working with married adolescent girls, we know that working with married adolescent girls is incredibly challenging as prevailing social norms restrict their choices to pursue their aspirations after marriage. Therefore, it is important to address some of these challenges of married adolescent girls. Bringing changes in societal attitude will be key to ensure a promising future where their choices are respected and rights are secured.
Our research highlights that girls face family and social pressure immediately after marriage to have the first baby within the first two years of marriage, to prove her loyalty to the marital relationship and her ability to reproduce. Another critical factor is that it is not enough to look at access to family planning services, but also what methods are made available to them. Most often, girls who are married at a young age do not get to choose more reliable methods as they are dependent on their spouses or in-laws on such matters. In most cases, girls do not have the right to make choices like these, which are critical for their life and future. It is important to work on these issues at agency and structural levels.
For institutional response to improve quality of public health services, the government program needs to provide special attention on ways to ensure the girls’ choice and make family planning methods that suits her choices and needs. It was encouraging for us to see the significant changes that IMAGE Plus could bring in the lives of early married girls within a very short span of time, particularly in delaying pregnancy and ensuring birth spacing, which is a common agenda that we are also working for. We congratulate IMAGE Plus for their achievements.
Monira Rahman, executive director of Innovation for Wellbeing Foundation
I am grateful to TdH NL for considering the mental health well-being issues of early married girls and incorporating them in the IMAGE Plus project design, which is importantly significant. Child marriage is a traumatic experience for the victims. It does not end with the wedding. The trauma stays with them for life and we need to focus on that.
Studies found that around 60% of mental health issues start at the age of 14 and continue up to 24 years of age. Another study shows the 15-29 years population group’s second highest cause of death is suicide. The IMAGE Plus project worked for this particularly vulnerable age group. Young mothers are also vulnerable to post-partum depression along with domestic violence. As a result, Mother & child suffers tremendously. Therefore, alongside providing training, building awareness and educating the girls, their mental health should be focused on for their well-being
The project has developed several psycho-social first aiders with support from Innovation for Wellbeing Foundation, which can be an example of community based first aid psycho-social support. The IMAGE Plus project has created an opportunity to replicate it’s learning in other areas of the country.
Mushfiqua Zaman Satiar, senior policy advisor (SRHR and gender) at the Netherlands Embassy
Married adolescent girls are often seen as part of the household furniture, with no voice of their own. We wanted to engage them in our project so that these girls can be acknowledged as part of the society, to identify their needs for attention, to help them claim their rights, get access to the services and develop themselves as a potential citizen of the nation.
Our IMAGE Plus project, with aim of empowering early married girl,s was initiated in 2014 and conducted through two phases – piloting and next phase with an extended number of 9,000 early married girls, multi-level stakeholders, geographical areas and thematic areas. I think, IMAGE Plus project has been able to make the early married girls visible and acknowledged as part of the women and adolescent population in the country which is reflected in different policies as well.
The 9,000 girls now have a voice and can make their own decisions. Also, adolescent girls and boys who were part of the project have now become change-makers and vowed not to let any early marriage happen in their community – neither theirs not others. The inclusive community involvement model has made a breakthrough by involving not only the early married girls but also their spouses, their in-laws especially mothers and the gatekeepers of the community as well as the local government representatives. Its universal now that issues of early married girl’s health and well-being and their inclusive empowerment including economical should get attention by the relevant policies of Bangladesh and our project partners are working toward this.
The learnings of the project are expected to contribute to all the initiatives related to early marriage. The informative materials developed under the project will be handed over to the government so that the resources can be available for all and utilized nationwide. We aspire to handover the project model to the Ministry of Women and Children Affairs for an effective replication. We would like to see the changes in all the girls, married and unmarried, to prepare themselves as productive and valuable citizens of the country and contribute to the development of society and the nation. This will contribute in implementation of the government policies and strategies like the 7th 5 Year National Plan of Action, also to the global commitments like the SDGs.
Nakib Rajib Ahmed, head of programmes of Red Orange Media and Communications
We tried to focus on how to do a media and advocacy campaign. We worked with three key groups – the community, individuals, and influencers - for our advocacy campaign. We took a few initiatives including TV commercials and celebrity endorsements. We also worked with three leading media houses: Dhaka Tribune, Samakal and Rtv.
Kohinur Khyum Tithila , staff reporter at Dhaka Tribune
The webinar was highly informative and insightful. Dhaka Tribune has always prioritized gender issues. Married adolescent girls are almost invisible in our society. This project gave them a voice, which is extremely commendable. Dhaka Tribune would be more than happy to run stories on this issue so that this message could reach a larger audience.
● Acknowledge Early Married Girls (EMGs) as part of women and adolescent population in country and ensure their access to rights and services
● Delaying first pregnancy, ensuring sufficient birth spacing, institutional delivery and male participation in family planning methods
● Providing vocational training to married adolescent girls for initiating IGA
● Engaging men and boys of the community to empower married adolescent girls
● Massive media and advocacy campaigns for mass awareness and policy implementation
● SRHR information needed for married and unmarried adolescents
● Address Gender based violence and domestic violence faced by EMGs
● Provide mental health support for married adolescent girls and young people
● Hand over the communications and training materials to the Government for the access and usage countrywide
● Hanover the IMAGE Plus model to the Ministry of Women and Children Affairs for nationwide replication
● To prevent child marriage, involve and make proactive different stakeholders