When we say our girls are going to places, we often forget to mention that our girls are going to places with fear- fear of rejection, fear of abuse, fear of harassment, fear of violence. At home, school, office, public places, and even online- where exactly is the fear of violence is not prevalent? And when exactly will we acknowledge that these fears harness the potentials of girls and young women?

In a recent national survey conducted by Plan International Bangladesh, we elicited response from around 12 thousand repondents to understand the existing situation of fear of violence among different concerns against girls and young women in households, educational institutes, workplace, public places, and online sphere.

The study found that 35.3% of girls' parents' fear of sexual harassment is a main cause for their children's marriage, and roughly 25.6% of girls' parents' concern of societal divisiveness is a big factor for the child's marriage. The study also revealed that, nationally 73.8% girls and young women responded that they faced violence and harassment at educational institutions.

We also see a ray of hope, when we see news on reduced child marriage rate in Kurigram district, the northern part of the country, after five years’ of effort

Among these, Khulna had the highest proportion (89.7%) and Barishal (80%) and Rajshahi (78.8%) also seem to have higher rates of violence. Among the types of violence, insults, criticism, beating, and indecent behaviors from teachers are common. Mental breakdown/depression has been the response of 90.2% girls and young women when asked about the impact and about 55.9% of them cope through remaining silent. Others cope through informing parents (52.5%) or teachers (31.6%) and local police (1.4%). The parents reported that they had imposed some restrictions on girls due to fear of violence and harassment. About 62% mothers don't allow daughters to participate in school picnics, whereas 54.1% fathers restrict them from attending private tuition.

And these kind of restrictions are vividly visible at the field level when we see girls like Tanzila in Barguna, the southern part of Bangladesh, gets married off at an early age due to facing harassment on her way to school.

But we also see a ray of hope, when we see news on reduced child marriage rate in Kurigram district, the northern part of the country, after five years’ of effort. And how exactly did this happen?

Bangladesh Government launched the National Plan of Action (NPA) 2018 to eliminate child marriage through existing institutional initiatives, programmes and combined efforts of all.

The goal of the NPA is to end the marriage of girls below the age of 15 years, reduce by one third the rate of marriage for girls aged 18 years in 2022, and completely eliminate child marriage by 2041.

District Action Plan has also been set to achieve this target. Plan International Bangladesh has been working with the government for a long with the common goal. As part of this, “Building Better Future for Girls (BBFG)- a project of the international development organisation rolled on in Kurigram in 2017 to support the Kurigram District Administration in implementing the district action plan.

According to a project survey, the rate of child marriage for under-15s was 17 percent in 2017, which came down to 6 percent in 2021. Eleven percent dropped in the last five years. And, for under 18-s, it was 65% in 2017, which came down to 51 percent in 2022.

This is not a miracle but a collaborative effort of the District Administration and NGOs, which contributed to reducing the curse in Kurigram.

The project has been working in nine upazilas, three municipalities, and 73 union parishads of Kurigram. This five-year project has been funded by the Swedish Embassy in Bangladesh and implemented by RDRS Bangladesh. Through this project, Plan International Bangladesh supports the government initiative to strengthen relevant institutions that can act as components of the national child protection system.

The district model focused on three specific components- Establishing Child Marriage Prevention Committee, Engaging girl children and youth, and raising mass awareness. BBFG has played a vital role in identifying the child marriage rate in Kurigram even during the lockdown. With a wide network of Champion Fathers, Youth Forums, and different committees, the project has raised awareness against child marriage throughout the pandemic. Beyond the airwaves, Building Better Futures for Girls is also inspiring other girls to become advocates in preventing and stopping child marriage. Through the Gender Equality Movement in Schools, teachers and girls alike are inspiring other girls to take action.

Working within local communities and with local government and administrative officials, the Building Better Futures for Girls project seeks to address three key issues under the broader child rights realization: the right to identity, protection, and participation, in order to prevent and reduce the incidence of child marriage while also challenging harmful gender stereotypes.

The Better Futures project adopts a multi-pronged strategy, deploying several key approaches designed to be mutually reinforcing and which support the same broader, holistic strategy for change, building knowledge and awareness of child, early and forced marriage, in particular among girls and boys. This is especially important because it equips young people with the knowledge and information to make informed decisions about their lives and futures.

Kurigram can be an eye-opening case for all of us who wish to see Bangladesh a child-marriage-free country. Every child, especially girls, has the right to go to school and lives a life without fear of any form of violence

A strong focus of this project entails working with and within communities. Better Futures project leaders carry out activities that challenge gender stereotypes and shift attitudes so that people, especially those with power and influence, support delaying marriage. The project is also providing education on gender equality and sexual and reproductive health and rights to girls and boys enrolled in schools as well as out-of-school children and young adolescents to ensure no one is left behind. The project has also supported the establishment of youth forums, girl-friendly action plans in schools, and increased usage of a national hotline for reporting suspected or imminent cases of child marriage. Education and awareness-raising among parents and community leaders is also essential, and the project promotes a series of initiatives, including training.

As a result, Kurigram district is experiencing collective change and a new form of thinking against putting girls in a perilous position. What’s more, girls witnessing other girls like themselves are fighting against these outdated social norms.

Undoubtedly, Kurigram can be an eye-opening case for all of us who wish to see Bangladesh a child-marriage-free country. Every child, especially girls, has the right to go to school and lives a life without fear of any form of violence. We want our girls to be the leaders of change, be the goal-getters- and for this we need to eliminate child marriage, hence eliminate the fear of violence.

*Wahida Zaman Shithi is Communications Specialist-Project Support, Plan International Bangladesh