Domestic violence against women and girls is an everyday occurrence in Bangladesh.
When S.M. Shaikat was 16, media reports of women suffering abuse at the hands of their husbands and in-laws caught his attention. But what could a teenager with little money or influence do about gender equality in this conservative society?
“I came across a number of situations and barriers, including my age and economic condition,” he told Devex. “I still remember that I was not treated to be a potential delegate to any local-level meetings by NGOs even. Government offices were more rigid than NGOs.”
But Shaikat was determined.
The practice of dowry — which he believes is the root cause of much of the violence against women and girls in Bangladesh — was also, he observed, a threat to his younger sister, and Shaikat couldn’t accept the idea of her risking violence or even death just because his family could perhaps not afford to marry her off or afford continuing to pay the groom’s family after the wedding.
So he started frequenting Internet cafes, sending emails to various stakeholders and writing articles criticizing the dowry practice. Finally, he joined the Socio-Economic Rural Advancement Committee of Bangladesh, for which he launched in 2006 a national campaign about the negative effects of the dowry system for women and girls.
That program remains active eight years later, and now has more than 1,000 members across Bangladesh. Yet scores of women and girls continue to die after suffering physical abuse by their husbands or relatives. Less than half of the cases make it to court, according to local legal aid groups.
A confluence of factors drive families in Bangladesh and elsewhere to marry off their girls at a young age, among them poverty, illiteracy, cultural or societal pressures and the fact that younger brides require smaller dowries.
That’s why the practice continues in Bangladesh even though it became illegal in 1980 under the Anti-Dowry Prohibition Act, and why more than 46,000 dowry-related cases are still pending in courts — the highest number (2,876) in the northern district of Mymensingh.
Shaikat has helped to set up a group of activists to monitor and report dowry and child marriage cases to the authorities in Mymensingh called “Project Jagoroni,” which means “wake up” in Bengali. The campaign has mobilized more than 600 individuals on social media.
“Young people are the driving force of every social change that ever happened in Bangladesh,” Shaikat said. “History shows that almost every movement was led and run by them. Therefore, I targeted youth to be the drivers of this project as well.”
Shaikat was recently chosen by the global advocacy organization Women Deliver as one of 10 winners of a $5,000 grant under its Youth Initiative for his contribution to empowering women — one of three male awardees in 2014.
“When I started working on anti-dowry and violence against women issues, even people close to me asked why as a male I am fighting for women’s rights,” he recalled. “I believe that since men are mostly responsible for creating violence against women, it should be the men acting as frontiers to fight these attitudes and practices. I firmly believe that unless a holistic movement of men and women is possible, societal diseases like dowry and child marriage will never be eliminated.”
And although the project was designed for Bangladesh, Shaikat said it can be replicated in other countries where dowry and child marriage persist, and where youth can serve as a game changer.
She Builds is a month-long conversation hosted by Devex in partnership with Chemonics, Creative Associates, JBS International as well as the Millennium Challenge Corp., United Nations Office for Project Services and the U.K. Department for International Development.