Catholic activists have applauded a new campaign by Bangladesh's government to educate schoolchildren about child marriage and gender-based violence. "Despite remarkable socio-economic developments in recent times, Bangladesh continues to have a bad name for its high level of child marriage and sexual harassment. It’s a good initiative to interact with schools and community people to show them the way out of these social malpractices," said Ranjon Francis Rozario, Assistant Executive Director of the Catholic Church’s social arm, Caritas. The government launched its one-year Red Card Campaign on Sept. 7 covering 195 schools in seven selected districts. It aims to raise awareness among 150,000 school students, teachers and parents. The campaign is sponsored by the European Union, Swiss Agency for Development Cooperation
and UN agencies. In Bangladesh, about 65 percent of girls get married before 18 — one of the highest rates of child marriage in the world, according to the United Nations Children Fund (UNICEF). However, according to government figures, the rate fell to 59 percent in 2014, down from 65 percent in 2011. As for gender-based violence and sexual harassment, Bangladesh Mahila Parishad, a leading women’s rights group, claims that 87 percent of women face such problems. A Bangladeshi woman who was married off at age of 14 seen with her husband and child (Photo by Stephan Uttom)
The Red Card Campaign hopes to change this by holding workshops and meetings in schools to discuss the consequences of cultural misogyny on reproductive, social and mental health. Schools will also create complaint boxes and prevention committees. Red cards with slogans against child marriage and sexual harassment will be widely distributed. They include two hot line numbers for students to call if people try to victimize them "People are more aware about child and women’s rights so these social menaces are declining," said Rosary. "But still there is long way to go. We need to ensure lawful rights and respect for children and women and the government must be vigilant to strictly implement laws against child marriage and harassment." Christian churches have a very strict stance against child marriage and don’t allow marriage of girls below 18, he added. "I want to see this effort followed up through continuous monitoring," said Rita Roseline Costa, from the Women’s Desk at the Catholic Bishops Conference of Bangladesh. "I hope it won’t become a one-off." Costa lamented a lack of social commitment and ineffective legal protection for children and women
who suffer premature marriage and molestation.
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"There are laws to restrain child marriages and harassment but children and women don’t speak up fearing a backlash from [their] family and society," she said. "It’s largely because our male-dominated society has yet to consider children and women as equal human beings and grant them lawful rights." The campaign is part of a series of government initiatives aiming to end child marriage and abuse explained Doctor Abul Hossain, a joint secretary at the Women and Children Affairs Ministry. "In 2015, there was a similar campaign in 130 schools that involved 100,000 students and community people," said Hossain. The government is committed to ending child marriage and sexual harassment in order to achieve gender equality and empowerment of women and girls, which is one of the UN Sustainable Development Goals
, he added.