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Protecting young girls in Bangladesh

A growing consensus is forming among social and economic experts that a vital component to the development of poorer countries is the education of girls and their ability to control their own health and fertility.

The International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) is a leading advocate for the sexual and reproductive health and rights of girls. Funded mainly by governments through overseas aid, the organisation has six regional offices worldwide and works in five key areas - Abortion, Access, Adolescents, Advocacy and HIV/AIDS. This month, the IPPF launched a campaign called ‘Girls Decide’ to highlight its work and raise awareness of the issues surrounding the health and well-being of young girls worldwide.

One issue highlighted by the new campaign is under-age marriage. According to the organisation, more than 60 million young women (aged 20-24) worldwide were married before they turned 18. Under-age marriages represent a severe risk to health, with complications related to pregnancy and childbirth (including unsafe abortions) accounting for the largest number of deaths among adolescent girls.

In South Asia, nearly half of girls marry before they turn 18 and the IPPF partners with local agencies to raise awareness of the health issues. In Bangladesh for example, the Family Planning Association of Bangladesh (FPAB) sends workers to visit schools, where they talk about under-age marriage and sexual health issues. One young girl to benefit from this service is shown in an IPPF video. Hosna is 14 years old and was devastated to discover her father had received a marriage proposal for her from the family of a 23-year old boy. Desperate to stay on at school and complete her education and also frightened by the experiences of a friend who had married at 14 and lost a baby, Hosna turned to an FPAB counsellor. Once the counsellor had explained the risks of underage marriage to her family, who also consulted her teacher and the local Imam, her parents agreed to let her stay in education. Now Hosna feels she had a choice about her life and says she wants every girl to have access to the right information and someone to support their decisions.

The IPPF campaign comes at a particularly sensitive time in Bangladesh. The nation has been shocked by the death of another 14 year old girl, Hena Begum. Publicly whipped for an alleged affair with her married cousin, Hena bled to death and died six days after her punishment. Police have opened a murder investigation and have arrested Hena’s cousin, accused of raping the young girl, as well as arresting four other villagers, including the Muslim cleric who ordered the beating. The case has caused much debate in the country over Sharia law punishments, especially after another woman died in December after she was publicly caned. Around 90 per cent of Bangladeshi’s adhere to a moderate version of Islam and have been distressed by hearing about such violent Sharia practices in rural areas. Rallies and human chains formed in the capital to protest over Hena’s death and human rights activists have been highlighting the illegality of such punishments, which were outlawed last July. The calls of the activists may be too late for Hena, but with the media’s spotlight on the rights of girls and their families and the solid work being carried out by organisations such as the FPAB, it is to be hoped no other young girls in Bangladesh will suffer her fate.

Laurinda Luffman signature