Girls continue to be the severely at risk in our country and child marriages are still very common in Bangladesh. They happen in front of us, but the majority of the people watch silently, and accept the issue without standing up against it. What is UNICEF doing in this context to raise people’s awareness?
This is an extremely serious issue. The number of child brides here is astounding – there are some 38 million child brides in this country. Bangladesh has committed to ending child marriage. It is one of the SDGs that the country has signed up to: the hope that there will be no child marriage by 2030. But the speed of reducing child marriage is far too slow. We need to go eight times faster if we want to meet that goal.
Something else that should be kept in mind is that child marriage is a crime. We need to emphasize that, and the harm that it does – not just to the long-term health and well-being of that child, but that child's community as well. Children who get married at an early age are far more likely to drop out of school, they are more likely to be vulnerable, and because of this they are not able to contribute to their fullest potential to their community and country. In the process, everybody loses.
For this country to continue to grow at the pace that it’s now growing, it is essential that we end child marriages.
What do you think will be the most important issues that will affect children’s rights in the coming years? What challenges will we face? Are you optimistic?
It is difficult to mention just one or two. It is an interlocking package. There is violence against children and women. The long term social, public health, economic costs of violence against children are massive. We know physical and emotional violence impacts children's immune systems and health through their entire lives. It impairs the full development of their brain. The first two years of a child's life are particularly critical. These are some of the critical issues which will continue to plague this country.
Another issue is one that is creeping up on us, but which might not be visible on a day-to-day basis is climate change. People in Bangladesh understand their vulnerability. There is no shortage of cyclones and storms, and the situation is getting worse. The impact on children is getting worse by the day as well. This affects access to clean water, access to services, access to healthcare. We know incidences of diseases increase due to climate change. We know that millions of children living in coastal areas will be affected in the days to come.
The Government of Bangladesh has sent a large delegation to COP-26 because it realizes how critical the issue is to the future development of this country. It is critical, both for the economic health of the country and the health and welfare of children.
When did you first realise you want to work for children? Could you share some fond memories from your long experience of working with UNICEF?
I used to be a journalist before I worked for UNICEF. I used to write about economics, foreign affairs and development. The more I wrote about economic growth, the more I realised that the issues we need to tackle, are those we need to tackle at a younger age. It is not just about balance of payments and inflation rates; what really matters is what happens to human capital and the potential for children to grow. If we don't invest in childhood, we lose all the opportunities to ensure economic growth.
We must invest in public health and good quality education. Otherwise, we cannot hope to have a functioning and growing economy. I realized this about 25 years ago and decided to work for children through UNICEF.
I spent a lot of time in emergency countries. I was working in Somalia after a war to ensure that schools could open, worked in Liberia during the Ebola epidemic and worked with the government and partners to make sure that schools could reopen safely and public health services were available.
What matters ultimately is how we are supporting children in classrooms, how we are making sure that the fundamentals of public health are in place, how we are ensuring that women's rights are ensured and children get access to vaccines. These basics matter the most, and it has been fantastic to work with governments to see them being put in place.
On World Children’s Day what would you like to say to the children of Bangladesh and the leaders and policymakers who represent them?
I think the most important thing to say to the children of Bangladesh is: Use your voice, use your platform. You have a voice and you need to be heard. What policymakers do, matters; your future depends on that. Stand up, speak out. Petition your policymakers and parliament. Hold your teachers accountable, hold you community accountable, hold us accountable.
Make sure that resources are going to what matters to you: not just schools, but quality education where children learn skills that are important for growing up; for a safe environment, not buffeted by climate change; access to quality healthcare; a community free of violence. These things matter, and your voice matters. Speak up – we are listening, and policymakers will listen to you as well. You need to use your voice.