In June 2019, in the heart of monsoon season, I travelled thousands of miles to rural Bangladesh with Plan International Canada, an organization supporting girls’ education in the community. Over the course of three days in the northern region of Rangpur, I met with community elders, mothers’ and children’s groups, maternal health leaders, and youth groups.
On our second day in Rangpur, we met with Basha* a twenty-year-old university student and founding member of the aptly named anti-child marriage group, “Wedding Busters.” Basha was in the fifth grade when her parents notified her that she was to be married. Terrified, she protested, pleading with her parents to stay in school. A consequence of early marriage is often the end of a girl’s education. However, neither her parents nor extended family were able to continue financially supporting her education; they insisted marriage was the only viable option. In a panic, Basha reached out to friends and teachers for help. Eventually, her family agreed that she could continue her studies if she found a way to raise the necessary funds to do so.
Determined to protect her right to education, Basha set out in search of a solution. She stumbled upon youth training and education programs in her community being funded by Plan International Canada. Through this programming, Basha learned something critical – though she was a child, she had rights. The skills she learned provided her the confidence to effectively communicate with her parents in difficult situations and negotiate outcomes more in line with her life aspirations. As a result of Basha’s appetite to continue her studies and tenacity to stop her own child marriage, her parents allowed her to go back to school. She is now fulfilling her childhood dream of attending university.
Every child has the right to education
As millions around the world continue to be impacted by COVID-19, I have found myself thinking about Basha often and reflecting on the value she placed on education. Due to the pandemic, 743 million girls around the world have had their education disrupted. Undoubtedly, many of them are like Basha – girls and young women who had to fight to access their right to education in the first place and who risk having their rights rolled back as the long-term impacts of the pandemic are revealed. When a girl is out of school, her risk of child marriage, violence and exploitation increases. Many of those affected by school closures due to the pandemic may never return to their studies.
I have always known that education is important, but recent experiences have further solidified this notion. Moreover, an additional layer of urgency in protecting girls’ education has been laid as the world responds to the current global health crisis.
On the last day of our trip in Bangladesh, we visited with teen girls in the “Change Makers” group. The education program is led by a local Plan International partner and is designed to discuss topics such as adolescent sexual and reproductive health and rights, gender and child marriage. While many girls in the program have or will face the prospect of forced marriage, the drive and ambition they exhibited was remarkable.
They shared their life aspirations of becoming doctors, journalists, and teachers with a contagious positivity. To witness these girls maintain such great ambition and morale amidst the challenges in their life was inspiring.
Protecting girls’ education in crisis
We have a responsibility to ensure every girl – especially girls in crisis – have the opportunity to learn, make decisions that impact their life, build confidence and thrive.
It’s clear that education is the most powerful agent of change to secure a safe and prosperous future for the world’s girls. In a global pandemic, the importance and value of education is further heightened. My experience will remind me every day of the incredible power within girls waiting to be unleashed. Like access to education, that’s worth fighting for.
*Name changed to protect identity
This blog post was contributed by Courtney Randle, a Plan International Canada supporter.