Heads turn to watch as 16-year-old Antora rides her motorbike through the neighborhoods of a rural village in Bangladesh. They’re confused — even shocked — to see a girl driving such a vehicle on her own. In Bangladesh, gender roles and expectations have been restrictive for generations, and traditionally, only men ride motorbikes.
Antora is not just defying those expectations; she’s changing them for the better.
When Antora joined Plan’s sponsorship program, she attended training sessions where she learned about her rights and how to inform others in her community about the harms of child marriage. Now, she goes door to door and advocates with and for other girls to achieve the same freedoms she has.
“My life has changed ever since I got involved with Plan International,” Antora says. “Now, I don’t only think about myself, but also about society, my community and my country.”
The change Antora is leading in her community is also popping up in other areas of Bangladesh, and it’s not just girls taking on this responsibility.
Ending child marriage through literature
Abdus is a renowned Bengali teacher, social worker and author in Bangladesh. After joining an education project led by Plan, he started leading support groups for girls at the school where he works.
“Over the course of my teaching profession, I have seen many girls with lots of potential leaving their studies behind to become wives and mothers at an early age,” Abdus says.
Wanting to do something to raise awareness among his students and their parents of the negative consequences of child marriage, Abdus decided to use his writing skills to create a poetry book on the subject of early marriage.
When the book was published in February 2022, his students immediately took copies home to read to their parents. Now, Abdus says that the girls he teaches have become more confident in advocating against child marriage for themselves and each other.
“A girl stopped me on the way to school and told me that she had stopped her own marriage by reading out one of the poems to her parents,” Abdus says.
Abdus has seen firsthand how, with more knowledge, child marriage is preventable. That’s a lesson Shamsur, another man in Bangladesh, has learned, too.
Changing the world starts with changing ourselves
Shamsur has been an imam (someone who leads prayers at a mosque) for more than 20 years and has participated in more than 100 marriage ceremonies, some of them child marriages. When Plan spoke to him in 2018, he told us that he too was married to his wife when she was still a teenager and had no knowledge of how harmful the practice is.
“I would sympathize with a father about his economic condition and would say yes to getting his daughter married at an early age for that reason,” Shamsur says.
When a Plan program to spread awareness about child marriage came to his community, Shamsur was recruited to complete the trainings. He learned about the health and safety risks girls face when they’re married as children, as well as the fact that it’s illegal in Bangladesh. He was also introduced to a phone app that he could use to verify people’s ages when they seek a marriage at his mosque.
“So far, since the training, I have been able to stop two child marriages,” he says. “Right after the training, we formed a committee which consists of 42 imams from our area. We try to talk to people in our community and tell them about the negative effects of child marriage. I also try to include these kinds of talks among people during prayer times at the mosque.”
Using power for good
Other religious leaders in Bangladesh are using their authority to raise awareness of this issue, like Maulana Md. Abdur in a neighboring community. His title, Maulana Md., refers to the high regard he has as a religious leader in his community.
For several years, Abdur has been campaigning against child marriage in his community with the support of one of Plan’s programs.
Along with dissuading the men in his mosque from marrying off their own daughters, he has been facilitating awareness-raising sessions in his community and counseling people against the practice of child marriage.
When Abdur told us about an intervention with one of his relatives who tried to marry his daughter off, he said economic hardship was at the center.
“I went and told him that the government is giving everything for free for girls’ education,” Abdur says. “You only need to send her to school. Don’t marry her off. I stopped that marriage.”
The work Abdur has done alongside other men and women has been so successful that his community is now free of child marriage!
The example these men are setting shows that when people know better, they can do better, and that girls like Antora don’t have to do the work to change the world alone.