As an environmental science graduate, I had the opportunity to travel to the rural areas of Bangladesh for various research purposes. During these field visits, I have seen many child brides maintaining households and many child grooms running households. However, the number of child brides is significantly much more than that of child grooms. We are developing, progressing and educating the nation, but still a large number of the young population are suffering from the social curse known as child marriage.
In this context, I was able to attend the International Conference on Child Marriage – “Strength in Unity, Girls are not Brides – A Global Youth Partnership to End Child Marriage”, held in Melaka, Malaysia from 19 May to 23 May 2016. The conference gave insight on the present status of the issue of child marriage and the overall situation in other countries as well. It was hosted by World Youth Foundation, an international organisation who engage, educate and empower youth worldwide. This conference not only focused on child marriage but also provided the participants with in-depth knowledge regarding sexual exploitation, children rights, gender equality, online harassment etc.
Participants from 22 countries shared their experiences and ideas on how to eradicate child marriage and move forward. Bangladesh had the highest number of participants in the whole conference, with other participants representing Hong Kong, United Kingdom, Malaysia, Nepal, India, Kenya, Ghana, Indonesia, Myanmar etc. The speakers included the President of the Commonwealth Youth Council (UK and Malaysia), representatives from United Nations Committees on both women and the youth, educators, psychologists and relevant bodies on youth development.
According to the statistics, over 700 million people living today get married before their eighteenth birthday and 15 million children marry annually. This means that 41000 children are married everyday or 28 children marry every two seconds, and for the last decade, about 140 million children have gotten married. The speakers argued that we all must see these statistics as lives being affected, not mere numbers, since every single number here is suffering a destiny they should not have.
Social activist Arjun Sanjel from Nepal suggested that parent’s education should be ensured to stop the scourge of child marriage. According to him, it is the parents who are forcing children into marriages and educating them will be a big step towards eradicating this problem. Nija Amir from Pakistan also spoke about how her father’s firm decision to stand against child marriage saved her from this, and highlighted the important role that parents play in preventing child marriage.
Saraban Tahura Zaman and Habiba Islam Shifat, lawyers from Bangladesh, presented various cases of child marriage and explained the root causes, which were lack of education, social stigma, lack of awareness etc. Participants from Myanmar also highlighted how Rohingya communities living as refugees are practicing child marriage widely, and asked for help to prevent this problem in marginalised communities.
Dr. Geetha Premkumar from India conducted a session on children that provided the opportunity to hear about the children’s perspectives regarding child marriage and gender equality. This session was a real eye opener. Six Malaysian children presented their opinions regarding child marriage and one of them, named Sarah Siaw, suggested an awareness concept named GEM (Gender Equality Movement) which she has already started in her school.
With the experience I gathered in the conference, I understood that our social norms and mindsets are the reason behind the whole issue of child marriage. To eradicate this huge problem, we need to spread awareness in a way that will be understood by all people, and we need to constantly emphasise the message that girls are not burdens.
The conference concluded with three objectives that focused on the importance of creating awareness on gender equality and proper education. The objectives also highlighted the need for collaboration between different stakeholders, including those who were present at the event. The objectives are achievable through various action plans that have to be clearly defined by relevant stakeholders, including those who are being affected by child marriage.
As a participant, I can say that the conference was a successful one that motivated the youth to work on eradicating child marriage, and I believe the people who attended the conference have it in them to fight the long fight and save children from this curse.