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On International Youth Day this year, we focus on the need for safe spaces for young people. Safe spaces can be civic, public, digital or physical spaces where young people can participate in key decisions and express themselves with dignity and safety.
Millions of young people are fighting everyday to make the world a better place for all. Let’s meet three of these people from Bangladesh and Uganda whose stories confirm the remarkable things that happen when young people find safe spaces to learn and grow.
Mahinur: A 16-year-old’s fight to save child brides
“One of my proudest moments was when I stopped my classmate’s marriage. We went to her house and spoke to her parents. They did not listen at first, but we did not give up. We explained that girls – their daughter – can do amazing things if they are given an education. We tried and tried and wouldn’t leave their door until they listened to us. I stopped my sister from getting married off too, because a dowry was involved.
I want to be a development worker. My passion began when I heard about a five-day programme on leadership development, violence against women and children and cyber bullying. I learned so much on the very first day. We made a sexual harassment map and marked the riskiest areas in our town. Our teachers guided us through the process. We went to places where a lot of sexual harassment took place, and talked to boys, the police and people in those communities. I didn’t stop there. I prevented my elder sister from getting married off because dowry was involved.
Back at school, I wrote an essay on all that I learned and thought were wrong in our country. I won first prize and was invited to speak at Comilla Town Hall. Everyone was really proud of me. That is when I started thinking – if a girl like me can win prizes and give a speech at Comilla Town Hall, why can’t all girls? Why should we all just get married as children? My mother was married when she was 12 years old. I don’t want to do that. It does not matter if I am a girl. I have so much to do.”
Noorjahan: A para-counsellor creating safe spaces
Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh
Bangladesh experienced a dramatic influx of Rohingyas fleeing violence in Myanmar in 2017. BRAC Institute of Educational Development’s Centre for Psychosocial Wellbeing was a crucial part of BRAC’s response on the ground. A team of para-counsellors and psychosocial workers set up spaces for psychosocial support – providing counselling and training on cross-cutting issues, such as sexual reproductive health, awareness on protection issues, and hygiene, especially targeting children and adolescents.
“I met a very traumatised, angry adolescent when I started working as a para-counsellor in the makeshift settlements of Cox’s Bazar. Every day he went straight to the music corner and belted out angry, rebellious songs against the Myanmar Government. He had lost his entire family at the hands of the Myanmar military. I worked on building rapport with him. Instead of telling him not to be angry, I diverted his attention towards things that he liked – art and football, it turned out. Soon he switched to reciting kabbiya (traditional Rohingya poetry) and began to make new friends. He showed me how a deeper crisis lies underneath the geo-political layers of the Rohingya crisis – one of identity and trauma.
Our team was one of the first responders, as people 50% of who are children and adolescents, poured in every day, with horrific experiences to share.
I assisted in establishing centres to extend psychosocial support for children and adolescents. I learnt their language to be able to not only communicate easily with the children but also give them a sense of home. The experience made me understand the real impact of para-counselling on the lives of people.
Scholastica: Karamoja’s champion for girls
The legal age of marriage in Uganda is 18 but 40% of girls marry before 18. The Uganda Demographic and Health Survey 2016 reported that almost a fifth of girls aged 15 to 19 have given birth. Research has shown that BRAC’s safe spaces for girls help them stay in school, become more financially literate and communicate more confidently.
“I walked barefoot for 60 kilometres, across dangerous mountain terrain in north-east Uganda, to avoid getting married. I was just 13. Orphaned at nine, I was forced by my father’s relatives to marry an older man.
I had to escape. I couldn’t accept becoming a wife and mother at 13. It has been five years since then and I am now back in Karamoja, this time leading the way in the fight against early marriage and child pregnancy in a girl’s club. Karamoja is one of Uganda’s poorest provinces, and child marriage is very common.
In the club, I advise the girls to shun early pregnancy and early marriages. I tell them not to be deceived by boys to ruin their future. I encourage them to go to school to study. Those who can’t manage studies, I encourage them to engage in a particular business activity and earn money for themselves. We share our experiences by telling stories, participating in debates, discussion of issues such as rape, adolescent sexual and reproductive health rights.
I now run a small bakery and restaurant. I am busy trying to expand it. I don’t have time to think about men and marriage.
I support my two sisters. I need them to study and become role models. Our relatives should stop thinking about marrying them off. They should educate them to become lawyers, teachers, engineers and bankers who can make change in our community.” (*Excerpts of this story have been taken from this article.)