Bangladesh: “Girls are fighting child marriage. And they’re winning.” - CARE

Bangladesh: “Girls are fighting child marriage. And they’re winning.”

Girl and boy play soccer outside

Anannya, 16, is fighting to change gender norms in her village. All photos by CARE Bangladesh

Anannya, 16, is fighting to change gender norms in her village. All photos by CARE Bangladesh

Anannya dreamed of playing soccer.

She didn’t dare to dream of playing soccer professionally, though, dazzling crowds under stadium lights on a world stage — Anannya simply wanted to go outside in her small village in northwestern Bangladesh and kick a soccer ball around with her friends.

But she couldn’t.

As a girl in Pirgacha, she says it was “unthinkable” for her to play a game that millions of girls and boys around the world play every day.

“Girls wanted to play sports,” Anannya says, “but we weren’t allowed to participate in outdoor games.”

Deeply entrenched cultural norms and religious beliefs about what girls can —and can’t — do has shaped the lives of young people growing up in Pirgacha for generations.

Often, these norms drive girls Anannya’s age into enforced marriages, agreed upon by families or outside parties, without the girls’ consent or opinion.

Girl with Soccer Ball
Until recently, Annanya says it was "unthinkable" that she could play soccer in her village.

According to UNICEF, South Asia has the highest rates of child marriage globally, with nearly 1 in 2 girls married before the age of eighteen.

Bangladesh in particular has one of the highest rates of child marriage in the world.

Since 2013, CARE’s Tipping Point program has focused on identifying the causes of child marriage in areas like Pirgacha, and they’ve worked to support girls and their families as they push back against harmful gender norms in order to create alternative paths for adolescent girls.

In Pirgacha, Tipping Point began gathering parents together to make the case for allowing girls to play and challenging the traditional ways of seeing girls in the world.

“Ever since then, things have looked better for us,” Annanya says of herself and the other girls in Pirgacha.

“We now participate in cricket, soccer, and other local games.”

The conversations were difficult, but Tipping Point and other allies helped get Anannya out into the open.

With the help of the Tipping Point program, Annanya and her friends have challenged the village gender norms.

Beyond short-term solutions

Sumaiya dreamed of college in Rangpur City.

But, like Anannya, her dreams seemed unthinkable, because of how her family and community saw her. Although she was the oldest child, her family wanted her to stay close to home so she could be married.

Her aspirations, she says, were not valued.

Young Woman in a Field
Sumaiya, 16, says her family wanted her to stay close to home so she could be married.

The United Nations calls child, early, and forced marriage (CEFM) an explicit violation of human rights. The deeply-rooted gender inequality in their communities makes adolescent girls like Sumaiya and Anannya extremely vulnerable to CEFM.

CARE sees gender inequality as a fundamental driver of the problem, and the Tipping Point program works to both increase girls’ individual skills and confidence, while also engaging men and boys as allies in the fight to fulfill girls’ rights.

For Sumaiya, this has meant a lot of difficult back and forth about the importance of education. But now she’s been admitted to the Begum Rokeya College in Rangpur City, and she’s gained her family’s support.

“You’re my oldest child,” her father says now.

“Even if I have to sacrifice my meal to afford your education, I will.”

By the end of the third phase of the decade-long Tipping Point program, CARE expects over 9,500 people in Nepal and Bangladesh to directly participate, with roughly 6,500 women and girls. Indirectly, CARE expects the program to impact nearly 28,500 people, including approximately 21,000 women and girls, as well as 7,500 men and boys.

“Girls are fighting child marriage. And they’re winning,” says Anne Sprinkel, CARE’s Tipping Point project director. “Successes like Anannya’s and Sumaiya’s show not just their families but also their communities and their countries what girls can do when treated equally.”

Sumaiya, 16, is fighting for access to education.