Children’s Participation in Ending Child Marriage: Exploring Child Activism in Bangladesh
Since the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child was adopted in 1989, there has been a growing demand for children’s participation in legislation, policies and practices worldwide. However, there have been a consistent range of challenges, including a pervasive concern about children’s participation not having an impact on decision-making and being overly controlled by adults and adult systems. Thus, examples of children’s participation that do have an impact and are led by children provide potential learning. This research looks at one such example, where children come together to stop child marriage in their local communities.
In many parts of the world, child marriage is still a common practice. It is estimated that 650 million girls and women alive today, 1 and 115 million boys and men, 2 were married before they turned 18. Child marriage disproportionally affects girls. This is reinforced by social norms and stereotypes that value girls in different ways than boys and perpetuate marital practices that are prejudicial to girls in the belief that marriage will provide security to the girls. 3 Bangladesh has one of the highest child marriage rates where 52 percent of the girls are married before the age 18 and 18 percent before the age of 15.
In order to address this issue, children from Child Forums, supported by World Vision Bangladesh, have been advocating to end child marriage and take direct action to stop the child marriages locally. This research project aimed to explore the claims, practices and outcomes of such child activism in Bangladesh. The research engaged with 36 child activists from two local Child Forums, as well as girls who had been at risk of being married, their parents and key community members mobilised by the child activists.
Child marriage is illegal in Bangladesh for girls under the age of 18 and boys under the age of 21, although courts can allow for exceptions in a girl’s ‘best interests’. Child activists reported stopping 72 child marriages over two years, as a result of their collective actions 5 . The initiatives taken by the children were not sudden and spontaneous occurrences. The research found that long-term engagement in the Child Forums led the children to take such actions -and to do so successfully. The Child Forum members were not at the vanguard of children’s participation, unrepresentative of their communities, but rather addressing the needs of their peers and sometimes themselves, who were at risk of child marriage.
The power of information was central to the children’s actions in two ways. First, the Child Forum members described their ever-increasing knowledge about the relevant law and negative effects of child marriage, which was pivotal to child activists’ persuasive discussions with parents. Second, Child Forum members became expert on how to find the information of a potential bride’s age, especially when parents asserted that the girl was old enough to marry when the children were confident that the bride was underage.
Rather than individualist or isolated, the child activism was highly relational: it relied on collective action amongst the Child Forum members and their peer and community networks. Child Forum members cited local law enforcement within the Bangladeshi administrative system as key partners and they reported high levels of confidence in the adults who provided them with assistance. The child activists were willing to act urgently, to move between places and to mobilise officials to accompany them, so as to stop child marriages which local officials found difficult to do.
Child activism was not always easy for the Child Forum members. For instance, they sometimes had problematic encounters with parents of potential child brides. Some of their own families did not want the children to be active on these issues. Within their communities, children reported some initial criticism for acting inappropriately for their age.
Regardless of these challenges, overall, the Child Forum members perceived very positive effects for themselves individually and their communities more generally. They expressed considerable pride in their achievements in improving recognition of children’s rights in their communities.
The main recommendations from this study is for child-focused agencies, decision makers, adult professionals and child activists to systematically invest in programmes that recognise children as rights holders and social actors with the capability to engage in actions to end child marriage and contribute to change, to identify and build on key relational networks over time, especially powerful local adults with whom children can engage with and mobilise, and, embed child activism as an integral component within long-term child participation programmes to support children in taking actions on issues that matter to them.