World Prematurity Day: Ending child marriage supports girls' empowerment and reduces premature birth

Nov 14, 2019
Three months ago, 14-year-old Hafcha made one of the most courageous decisions she has ever made – a decision that changed the course of her friend Assamoni’s future.

You see, in Bangladesh, more than half of all girls are married by the time they’re 18 – 39 per cent before they’re even 15 years old. With little knowledge of their bodies or reproductive health, many end up as young mothers, often at risk of giving birth to premature babies.

Assamoni learned through a family member that she would join those ranks by force. “After I heard about my marriage, I told my parents I wasn’t ready. I wanted to keep studying, but they wouldn’t listen.” 

a young Bangladeshi girl poses for the camera in a blue scarf and dress.
Assamoni narrowly escaped marriage at the age of 14, with the help of her friends in the peer group supported by Born on Time. Photo: Marie Bettings

Assamoni and Hafcha became friends at an adolescent peer group that meets every other week in a small community room at the centre of their village in rural Bangladesh. The 20 teenagers cover topics across the sexual and reproductive health and rights spectrum including, how to handle peer pressure, menstrual hygiene management, gender equality, and the importance of increased decision-making over their own lives and futures.

Leading the group through each session is 16-year-old Morion. As I watch her lead the group through one of the sessions, I can’t help but notice her confidence, passion and warmth – some things you don’t need a translator for.

A close up of a girl smiling for the camera.
As a peer-educator Morion and her friends are raising awareness among their peers about their rights and issues of gender equality. Photo: Marie Bettings

Morion is a peer-educator working to raise awareness among girls her age around their sexual and reproductive health and rights through Born on Time

The first public-private partnership for the prevention of preterm birth, Born on Time has been supporting these girls as they meet, trying to address many of the risk factors of prematurity, including child, early and forced marriage. Marrying too young often puts girls in increased danger of intimate partner violence, early pregnancies, and sexually-transmitted infections – all added risk factors for preterm birth.

“Our friendships are stronger here because we can share openly about what we’re going through,” Morion notes.

A born advocate, Morion is fiercely loyal to the group of girls sitting in a circle in front of her. “If I only become an advocate, that’s not good enough for me. I have to act.” 

A group of girls sit in a circle on the floor
The adolescent girls group meets bi-weekly to discuss things like how to handle peer pressure, menstrual hygiene management, gender equality, and more. Photo: Marie Bettings

When Morion and her friends heard about Assamoni’s impending marriage, they showed up en masse at her home, trying to convince her parents that this was not only wrong but illegal.

When her parents moved her to her grandmother’s village to try and hide the wedding, Assamoni was devastated. And when Assamoni didn’t show up for the group’s regular meeting, Hafcha knew something was wrong. 

That’s when she picked up the phone and dialled the country’s national hotline for child marriage.

A young Bangladeshi girl smiling for the camera
14-year-old Hafcha made a life-changing phone call to help her friend Assamoni escape child marriage. Photo: Marie Bettings

“We already know all the harmful things that come with child marriage,” Hafcha explains. “I didn’t want one of my friends to go through that.” 

Once the call was placed, a support team including law enforcement and community leaders showed up in time to stop the marriage.

Morion is quick to give credit back to Assamoni herself. “Assamoni led the process against her own child marriage by speaking out in the first place,” Morion exclaims. “We just came together to support her.”

Assamoni’s face beams with pride. Sitting among these young women, I’m reminded about the power of partnership, education and courage to change the narrative not only around women and girls’ empowerment, but also around preterm birth. 

Three Bangladeshi girls smile for the camera
(L-R) Assamoni, Morion, and Hafcha are working together to end the cycle of child marriage in their community and support each other for a new future. Photo: Marie Bettings.

As we commemorate World Prematurity Day this year, it’s young women like Assamoni, Morion and Hafcha who are going to slowly chip away at the generational burden of gender inequality and write a new future for themselves and their future children, if they choose to have them.

Excited about how she can help others, Assamoni looks me straight in the eyes and remarks, “I know I can mobilize others to do this work as well. We are running and becoming stronger!”

With a focus in Bangladesh, Ethiopia and Mali, Born On Time is the first public-private partnership to prioritize the prevention of preterm birth, now the leading cause of death in children under five globally. This five year initiative brings together expertise and resources from World Vision, Plan International, Save the Children, the Government of Canada and Johnson & Johnson to help ensure every child is born on time.

by Marie Bettings, Born on Time program director, World Vision Canada

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