Notes from the Field

School Helps Discourage Child Marriages in Bangladesh

March 24, 2010

Forced child marriages continue to plague young women throughout the world, depriving them of their most basic rights, including access to education. According to UNICEF, child marriages (under 18 years old) are most common in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, with Bangladesh ranking one of the highest at 65 percent. Rukhsana Zaman Shanu, from Bangladesh’s Northern district of Rangpur, knows first-hand how difficult finding a path to a healthy education can be for a girl in Bangladesh.

Born in 1966 to a relatively wealthy family, Shanu was forced by her parents to stop her education after junior high school in order to prepare for marriage. Determined to continue her education anyway, she left her parents and moved into another family’s house to work as a live-in tutor. The money that she earned as a tutor was barely enough to pay for her school tuition, so she was forced to study part time and, therefore, it took her much longer to finish. After finally graduating high school in 1986, Shanu began work as a part-time teacher and also trained at the Bangladesh Press Institute in Dhaka to become a journalist. Although she wasn’t living at home and was completely self-sufficient, her family members still tried to stop her from practicing journalism. However, she found a way around her family’s persistence by using a false name. Covering mostly women’s and children’s issues, Shanu became more aware of other girls who were also forced to quit school early due to child marriages. Her passion in this area grew, and in 1988, she began working with the local organization, Women and Children Rights, supported by Concern Worldwide Bangladesh. While working, she earned a master’s degree in management, and began to realize that access to education was a key element to reducing or preventing child marriages.

Research findings also supported her conviction that education reduces the risk of child marriages by encouraging girls and boys to stay in school longer instead. In 2000, she started a free junior high school with just eight children called Marigold Tutorial in Saidpur town to serve the village’s poorest boys and girls. Shanu communicated closely with the young students’ parents on their children’s progress, and over time, positive word spread throughout the village about the school. Parents began to realize the impact the school was having on their children’s reading, writing, and English speaking skills. Parents saw hope in their children’s eyes – and pulling them out of school to marry became a much harder decision to make.

Students attend Marigold Tutorial school. The school began with just eight kids, and has now grown to 83.

Students attend Marigold Tutorial school. The school began with just eight kids, and has now grown to 83.

Now Shanu’s school serves 83 students (51 girls and 32 boys). Starting last year, in order to keep the school running, she began charging a small tuition fee to those few students who could afford it. But money was tight, and not much was left over for basic school supplies. In 2003, The Asia Foundation’s Books for Asia program made its first donation to the school’s library. The books have served as the primary resources for the students to participate in national and international educational competitions that give them highly-coveted visibility and inspiration, such as the Golden Tapestry Award. Jointly arranged by the British Council and the GlaxoSmithKline, the contest invited 1,800 schools from 38 Commonwealth countries around the world to submit tapestry artwork. A tapestry made by the Marigold Tutorial students made it into the top five, and was selected to be a part of the exhibition in Melbourne, Australia, in 2006.

Right now, 12 students at Marigold Tutorial are working on an online project related to climate change, using Books for Asia books on environmental science, geography, and art. Books for Asia has donated 1,000 books to Marigold’s library so far, and, says Shanu, they serve as building blocks to drive her and her students forward.

Sukla Dey manages The Asia Foundation’s books program in Bangladesh. She can be reached at sdey@asiafound.org.

View all posts by Sukla Dey

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