Entrenched in patriarchy, child marriage is one of the world’s most prevalent harmful practices. Around the world, 12 million girls are forced into marriage each year, and if we don't act now, more than 150 million girls will become child brides by 2030. Stats like these are shocking, but they're also overwhelming - and change this big can only come from big organisations, right?
Wrong. Right now, youth advocates around the world are working to ensure their voices are heard, and that - given the platform - change is possible.
This World Youth Skills Day on July 15th, many are working to raise awareness about the importance of youth skills development, and the crucial role young people can play in both advocacy and policy progress.
Standing Together Against Child Marriage
At the Women Deliver 2019 event in Vancouver - the world’s largest conference on gender equality and the health, rights, and wellbeing of girls and women - Brides do Good spoke to Sifat, a youth advocate for one of our charity partners Plan International UK, who has been campaigning for an end to child marriage in his home nation of Bangladesh since the age of just twelve years old.
Even as a young boy, Sifat believed it was everyone’s duty to stand up against child marriage, and has personally stopped many girls from being forced into marriage at a young age, by using his status as a male within the community to intervene. In Bangladesh, child marriage is illegal, but the traditional practice persists, and is largely unattested in many communities,
'When I was 12 years old, I heard about a girl in the year below me at school who was due to be married to a much older man. I took some friends, and together we went to investigate what was going on. We took the issue to the police, where they had to do something about it. That was the start of everything for me.'
At the time, the police asked Sifat if he had more proof of the marriage, so he obtained a letter the girl had written to her friend, describing what was happening to her.
'She had very good handwriting and was very eloquent. It was obvious the letter was from her. The police officer was amazed to see the letter and the recording, and he said to me "okay – be my young detective from today!"’
Almost ten years on, and the girl who wrote the letter is now due to graduate from university - something Sifat is excited to let everyone know. Since then, Sifat has worked with organisations including Plan International and the government of Bangladesh, to raise community awareness of the dangers of child marriage, and promote programmes to eradicate it.
But You're A Boy...
'Growing up, when people would find out that I was working on ending child marriage, people would say to me, "but you’re a young boy! Why not work on another issue?”’ Sifat says. ‘There are very few men working on women and girls’ rights. And so, I think this is somewhere that I can do good - and it’s somewhere that we all need to do good.’
Since he begun his advocacy, Sifat has convinced many of his male peers to stand as youth activists in support of girls’ rights.
'A lot of my friends have joined me, which is really wonderful to see. The first thing I often find is that they don’t even know the definition of feminism. What I tell them is, if you believe in a balanced world, if you believe that women should have equal rights – you are a feminist.'
Educating boys and men can help to ensure that the most vulnerable are protected. However, Sifat also recognises the importance of empowering girls to advocate for themselves – a recommendation put forth in ‘Tackling the Taboo’, a recent comprehensive report by the CEFMU (Child, Early and Forced Marriage and Unions) and Sexuality Programs Working Group.
When combatting child marriage, it is important for all to recognise girls as the agents of change, but that we must work with men and boys to advance gender quality. As the report states, we must centre girls’ participation and leadership, but cannot place the burden of change entirely on them. In patriarchal societies, to shift traditional gender norms, it will take the work of everyone. As Sifat puts it:
'Expecting the young girls to do all the work is like trying to put out a burning house from the inside. It might work, but it will be difficult and take a lot more time. Why don’t we, the people on the outside, try to help?'
What Do Young People Know?
Who better to change the future than those who will lead it? The most powerful change is often created through youth-run campaign models, with educators like Sifat who can create and implement programmes, and influence their peers.
'If it involves young people, then to me it is obvious that young people should have a say’, explains Sifat. ‘Child marriage is centred around young people. It is more effective if young people lead campaigns, because we are the ones who are experiencing the issues.’
Like Sifat, the Brides do Good community is passionate about engaging local communities to help in the fight to end child marriage. We strive to achieve immediate and lasting change, through partnering with projects that underpin our core values; projects that work with communities to enable them to meet their needs independently and ethically in the future. Crucially, we are committed to working with entire communities - from church elders, to the youth advocates of the future.
‘Yes,' Sifat says, ‘we need older people and big organisations – we need the guidance from them – but young people are experts in our own ways. We are the ones who are facing the problems, and we know it better than anyone.'