Child marriage is a critical issue, and it exists every corner of the world – such as in a small village of Bangladesh to Baltimore, USA. It is a frustrating situation for the society and girls are severely suffering for their fundamental rights to live. The consequences of child bride are a high risk of poor health, death during childbirth, premature birth, lack of education access, trapped in poverty cycle and overall adverse situation to move forward for economic development.
The First Lady of the United States of America Melania Trump is seen handing over the award to Sharmin Akter, an Activist Against Early/Forced Marriage in Bangladesh.
Bangladesh is one of the highest child marriage rated country in the world while the economy is growing exponentially and it is promising. However, still, we are in an awkward position about the issue of early marriage, where 52% of girls are married before they turn eighteen and 18% got married under the age of 15th, according to the UNICEF data 2016. Despite all these circumstances, some story makes us motivated when a 15-year-old girl, Sharmin Akter take her spirit to escape in that situation. She withstood her parent decision to get married and continue her education. Globally she has recognized for her brave act and got International Women of Courage Award 2017.
It is difficult to break social structure, traditional economic factors and cultural influences for the custom of early marriage in Bangladesh and many girls are in trapped with it. I know a village woman, Shahida Begum who made a difference in her community through education and entrepreneurial activities. She is from a small area in Kushtia district of Bangladesh where she got married at age 13. Soon after she came up with her first child and it was continued for the demand of her in-law’s family. It was challenging to run the big family with her husband’s little income. So, she was trying to earn some extra money to sale her handmade ‘Nakshi Kantha’, but that was not enough.
Fortunately, she was selected for a training program of sewing which led her to initiate a micro-business with the help of a small loan from an NGO. Later in 1994, she started her journey in collaboration with more than 30 women. She is also facilitating schools for children through NGOs support and doing a lot of social activities against child marriage, promote education, stop violence against women and empowering women to help their economic stability. For her contributions, she received the “Best Successful Self Worker” award by the Ministry of Youth & Sports Bangladesh. I think her best award is to save many girls from child bride and ensure their social and economic freedom.
In 2010 she came to me for a business loan for her business enterprise. However, the documents were not organized, and she was little aware of the formal process for bank finance. After the discussion, I found that she is very skilled in business without formal education. That made me curious to visit her business in the village. I was surprised to see how she build a microenterprise in a profitable business ‘Alor Disha’, where many women involved as a worker or individual enterprise owners, who sell their product to Alor Disa. Moreover, they sell the finished product to the big city like Dhaka. I worked with her voluntarily to organize the documents and introduced her to some organizations where she can get business skills and network to promote her business.
Initially, we gave her an SME loan for working capital. The repayment was excellent. After one year we increased the loan amount based on her business capacity and opportunity. Now the business is expanding, and her daughter in law has joined with her. Shahida Begum promotes other small-scale women entrepreneurs and brings them in financial inclusion to support their small enterprises. She has suffered a lot because of her child marriage but her enthusiasm and willpower she empowered herself and encouraged the society to move forward the economic development. I believe if she could get access to education and not forced for marriage at her childhood, she would be more potential for herself and the whole community. I wish Sharmin Akter will explore her dreams to become a lawyer and work for better policy and environment to ensure the right to life for children and girls in the society.
The writer (middle in the back row) is seen with a woman entrepreneur and some beneficiaries at a slum in Dhaka, Bangladesh.
Around the world, many girls have suffered in their childhood for forced marriage, poverty, rape, childbirth, slavery, abuses and violence; but nothing can stop them to pursue their dreams like Samra Zafar, Oprah Winfrey, Liz Murray and many more. All these legendary women’s stories encouraged me, but when I have started to work with these village women, I am impressed and salute them to see their hardship for surviving and lift up others from this miserable situation to show the light of life.
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Naiyer Fatema is a financial inclusion specialist and women economic empowerment activist. She experienced working with the financial organizations in Bangladesh and designed some financial products for small and medium-sized entrepreneurs (SME). She is a business graduate and a Masters in Development Studies (MDS). Currently, she facilitates programs in Digital Spaces in Adelaide to support communities taking the advantage of emerging technologies and new opportunities. Naiyer is an International Exchange Alumni of the U.S. government-sponsored exchange programs and a member of the Development Network, New Zealand.