In a small village outside Sylhet, Bangladesh, a 17-year-old boy named Dipko has been going door-to-door to convince families to find alternatives to child marriage. Each door and each conversation is part of his mission to help girls and women in his community.
He doesn’t know how many doors he’s knocked on, he told Broadly, but it’s surely too many to count.
Dipko first began his work as an activist when a social worker told him about a local adolescent club that focuses on literacy, health education, and the risks of early marriage. The club — one of around 6,000 in Bangladesh funded by Unicef — empowers children to become activists for their own rights.
"We learned we have rights and how it's not only bad for girls because they don't go to school, but can hurt their health if they have babies before their bodies are really ready," Dipko explained to Broadly. "Once I understood how bad it was, I felt like I had to do something."
So far, he’s convinced 13 families to keep their daughters in school and out of early, non-consensual marriages.
"Lots of parents tell me to mind my own business, that it is their child and their choice,” Dipko said.
In Bangladesh, child marriage has technically been illegal since 1929. The practice is punishable by a $13 fine and a month-long jail sentence.
And yet, 52% of girls in Bangladesh are married before the age of 18, one of the highest rates in the world according to UNICEF (2016).
According to Unicef, “the practice of dowry – requiring a bride’s family to pay significant sums to the groom – encourages the marriage of the youngest adolescent girls because younger brides typically require smaller dowries.”
Laxmi, a 17-year-old physically disabled girl from the same village, told Broadly she’d be married by now if it weren’t for what she had learned in the youth club Dipko attended.
Shortly after her 15th birthday, she overheard her father tell her mother that marrying Laxmi off would ease the family’s economic burden — especially because of her condition.
"I walked in and told him no, that I wasn't ready, that my body wasn't developed, and besides it is against the law. That he could go to jail," she recalled.
Instead, she convinced her father that she wanted to help support the family by learning how to sew and starting her own business. In the end, the family concluded that Laxmi would earn more this way than whatever the family would receive as a dowry.
“My mother and I make saris together now, and the money I make helps keep my siblings in school,” she said. One day, she added, she wants to open her own fashion shop where she can design clothing.
For every 10 girls in Bangladesh, six are married by the age of 18, according to Unicef. In the developing world, that number is one of every 10.
Last month, the Parliament of Bangladesh passed the Child Marriage Restraint Act 2016, which permits girls under 18 to marry under “special circumstances,” with permission from their parents and the court. The law does not specify a minimum age.
For a country that publically committed to ending child marriage by 2041, the law is a devastating step backwards.