“Child Marriage Free”
These were the words on a hand-written poster on a school wall in the small village of Laxmipur, just outside Bangladesh’s sprawling capital of Dhaka.
14 year old Fatima is proudly showing me this poster, explaining how she has worked hard towards achieving this powerful declaration. Fatima has campaigned using community theatre, petitions and public meetings, all with the aim of ensuring girls and boys can be walking to school and not up the aisle. She has herself managed to avoid child marriage and is continuing to enjoy her schooling. “My favourite subject is English and I want to be a teacher when I grow up”, she tells me.
I’m on a visit to Bangladesh with four UK parliamentarians, Mary Macleod, Debbie Abrahams, Lord Tariq Ahmad and Virendra Kumar Sharma. All members of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Debt, Aid and Trade.
“It is remarkable to see the knowledge and awareness about rights, health and other issues in women and children in such a remote village in Bangladesh”, says Virendra.
Fatima then shows us the simple mud houses that she and her community live in. They provide essential shelter and coolness right now in the middle of the monsoon. It’s boiling hot, but we are enjoying a brief spell of sunshine in contrast to the relentless rain that has poured down until now.
Mingming Remata Evora, Plan Bangladesh’s Country Director, tells us that a shocking two thirds of girls in Bangladesh are married before the legal age of 18. Plan has found that girls like Fatima can be powerful advocates for ending early and forced marriage. Laxmiper is one of five villages in Gazipur that Plan, in cooperation with the local community and government, has supported to become ‘Child Marriage Free', affecting around 30,000 girls.
The MPs and I are saying our good-byes to Fatima and her village to the sound of a group of school children waving and singing ‘We are children, but we will develop our village. We will overcome all the problems and we will build our future. Bangladesh, Bangladesh, Bangladesh...”
If ever there was a moment which encapsulated why we're fighting for girls to walk to school and not up the aisle, this was it.