Amar desh, amar shopno: voices of young Bangladeshis

Posted on September 26, 2011


Amar desh, amar shopno. My country, my dream.

Bangladesh is a nation of young people. About 50 million people, or one third of the population, make up the youth of Bangladesh.

In Boda last week, in the far northwest of Bangladesh, about 50 of these young people met at a Youth Against Hunger forum to share their visions for their country, report on what actions they’d taken so far towards making those dreams a reality, and plan how they could act more effectively in the future.

Bangladesh is also a land of dreamers. Besides talking about family, one of the most popular topics of conversation is vision. There may not always be the resources or skills or consensus for action, but the sheer amount of energy, ideas and hope for the future is outstanding.

Nowhere is that energy more buzzing than among the youth of Bangladesh.

Youth activism in Bangladesh

In Australia, it’s not uncommon for “generation Y” to be accused of laziness or apathy. But in Bangladesh, young people are viewed very differently. The extent of problems facing the people of Bangladesh demands pragmatism. As a result, the youth are valued for the hopeful future they represent. It’s a responsibility that many young Bangladeshis embrace with passion.

Hunger Free World’s autonomous youth wing, Youth Against Hunger, is made up of about 700 passionate young people who come from all over Bangladesh.

They call themselves the “second generation of freedom fighters”, a reference to the freedom fighters who championed the idea of a Bengali-speaking nation in the Language Movement of 1952, and the nine-month long Liberation War in 1971. The result of these wars was the birth of Bangladesh and the separation of East Pakistan from West Pakistan. Many of the freedom fighters were young people – at least 200 students of Dhaka University were among the first victims of the Pakistani army in March 1971.

Youth Against Hunger activists are involved in a number of projects that aim to create a hunger and poverty free Bangladesh by 2021, the golden jubilee of the nation’s independence. Many of the members are from poor, rural backgrounds, and have a very personal understanding of the problems facing young people here – high levels of unemployment, low levels of education and early marriage are just a few examples. These young activists are eager to address the problems facing their generation and their nation.

Problems facing young Bangladeshis

At the forum in Boda, local youth invited other Youth Against Hunger members to their villages to meet their families and learn a little about each other’s lives.

Sitting on a wooden bench among the mud huts, listening to the popping sounds of puffed rice (moori) being cooked for breakfast, we spoke about how many brothers and sisters we had, the crops the villagers grow on their farms, the nearby school, and the food we like to eat.

Shami ache?” (“Are you married?) was a recurrent question.

The older women told me in detail how they’d been married at early ages and that they hoped it might be different for their daughters. As we chatted and the morning passed, the younger women started to speak for themselves.

“I want to finish school so that I can become a teacher,” one girl told me. She didn’t know when her birthday was, but she looked about ten-years-old.

Another girl, a Youth Against Hunger member, told me that she studied hard.

“What will you do when you finish school?” I asked.

“If I am lucky, maybe I can be a doctor.”

Sadly, luck (good or bad) does play a part in her future – her choices to stay in school, pick a career and get married are not entirely her own. It will depend on her family’s views of those choices, particularly her father’s.

One of the problems associated with early marriage is the dowries that are demanded from families. One mother shared the story of a family who was forced to sell their farm land for 80,000 taka (about $AU1,100, equivalent to more than a year’s wages) to pay the debt on the dowry for their daughter’s marriage.

The legal marriage age for females is 18, but two thirds of girls are married before they reach 18. It’s a frightening statistic. Dowry payments are also illegal, but commonly demanded in rural areas.

Finding solutions and more problems

The consensus among the women I spoke to was that although many of them wanted to stop these practices, they still needed more widespread backing from the men in their village. This demand was echoed by Archbishop Desmond Tutu while promoting the Girls Not Brides campaign in New York last week:

“Men tend to be the political leaders and tend to be the traditional leaders and tend to be the religious leaders and tend to give the lead, and if this group of leaders said this is not something we condone, then communities will begin to think differently.”

At the very least, it’s clear that social change requires the whole community’s support. Young people, old people, men, women, Deshis and Bideshis need to work together towards a solution.

But before the solution arrives, it seems that there needs to be agreement around the definition of the problem itself.

Last week, I retweeted some statistics from Unicef’s State of the World’s Children 2011 report:

RT @BIGBADTROLL69: #Child marriage rates: #Bangladesh 66% #Afghanistan 39% #India 47%

Not long after, @arghyagupta tweeted back with an interesting comment that got me thinking:

@jkcsays @BIGBADTROLL69 if you’re using 18 as an arbitrary definition for “child”, then it’s not really taking into acct cultural relativity

It’s true that there are many problems associated with assigning a universal definition to childhood. In Dhaka on my way to work every day, I see children as young as six begging for money or collecting items from rubbish piles to re-sell. Childhood here means something completely different to what it means for young Australians. For many, it’s less about playtime and more about survival.

@arghyagupta’s comment got me thinking about whether cultural differences could sometimes excuse certain activities – such as child marriage – that might be considered unacceptable in one place and yet still appropriate in another.

It’s important to question any ideas we have about universal definitions and one-size-fits-all approaches. Especially in development work, plenty of mistakes can be made when one group imposes their values onto another community – even when it is done with the best of intentions.

But when it comes to child marriage, in the context of Bangladesh, cultural relativism has to be challenged. This is a place where not everyone has access to healthcare, not everyone has access to safe and nutritious food, not everyone has access to education and not everyone has the power to make the decisions that will define their life.

Subsequently, marriage before the age of 18 leads to serious problems for young parents and their babies.

Girls married at a young age are less likely to finish school. This denies them an awareness of their rights to make decisions affecting their bodies, health and wellbeing. Girls aged 15 to 19 are twice as likely than those aged 20 to 24 to die in pregnancy and childbirth. Girls aged ten to 15 are five times more likely than women aged 20 to 24 to die in pregnancy and childbirth. Malnourished girls become the malnourished mothers of malnourished babies and the cycle of poverty continues.

The implications of this, and the alternatives associated with delaying marriage, are captured in the simplified but powerful clip, The Girl Effect.

Why youth empowerment matters

Defining someone as a child and implying that they need to be protected from the world can sometimes have the devastating consequence of denying them a voice. It’s a fine line between labelling someone as vulnerable and taking away their legitimacy to speak for themselves.

Instead of the debate being for and from them, it is about them.

Since this conversation centres around young people, it is essential that they are placed at the heart of addressing the problem and advocating a solution for child marriage.

In Boda, the youth forum finished under the stars. Both young females and young males stayed awake until late into the night singing in Bengali, dancing around the campfire, and brainstorming their ideas for projects that will address some of the problems facing them, their friends and their peers. The solutions they proposed included projects that will address the problem of child marriage.

In a country like Bangladesh, that embraces big hopes and dreams as part of the national consciousness, it is these young people’s vision and energy for change that has the potential to turn hopes into actions.

Bangladesh faces many problems as a nation. But watching the members of Youth Against Hunger at the gathering in Boda made me believe, and hope, that real change can happen here, if their views are heard and embraced.