Finding her true value

Media Contact

Anne McPherson

Vice President, Global Communications email [email protected]

Although I couldn’t understand her words, the music of Yasna’s bangles reflected the passion with which she shared her story as she sat across from me and another researcher in a neighbor’s home. Her colorful bracelets repeatedly took a high, feverish pitch as Yasna gestured spiritedly while she told us how she stayed in school instead of getting married like so many of her friends, and how a unique program in Bangladesh, where Yasna lives, is helping transform the lives of girls.

They are teenagers just like 18-year-old Yasna, who leads a girls’ club that is part of the Social and Financial Empowerment for Adolescents (SoFEA) program in Bangladesh. SoFEA is an effort of BRAC, a nongovernmental organization that focuses on creating opportunity for the world’s poor. Established in a remote village in Bangladesh in 1972, BRAC today is the largest development organization in the world.

Yasna was among 20 participants my colleagues and I spoke with recently to assess what particular elements of BRAC’s SoFEA program contribute to helping girls delay marriage and ensuring a healthy transition to adulthood. Our study of SoFEA is a follow up to ICRW’s groundbreaking “Solutions to End Child Marriage” report, which identified several program emphases – such as financial literacy and social networks – that were shown to delay the age of marriage. Our current study takes a deeper look at SoFEA – and at successful programs in other countries including ‘Ishraq’ run by Save the Children in Egypt – that offer opportunities that can be particularly transformative for girls vulnerable to child marriage.

A pilot project funded by the Nike Foundation, SoFEA promotes social and financial empowerment for adolescent girls. The program works through the vehicle of clubs for 11- to 21-year-old girls who meet at least three times weekly. There are more than 300 clubs in the country, and each has a leader, who, like Yasna, is a girl from the community. Club leaders work alongside BRAC staff to provide life skills and livelihood training as well as financial literacy to club members. They also provide a savings and loan program. In part, SoFEA aims to instill among its members that adolescent girls are entitled to and capable of earning income to support themselves and their families. The program also stresses that early marriage and early childbearing are dangerous to girls’ health and future.

In Bangladesh, the vast majority of girls are married before they reach 18, the legal age of marriage in the country. Parents, especially those from poorer households, routinely face a choice between keeping their daughter in school until she is at least 18, or accepting an offer from a good suitor. Many choose the latter, concerned that their daughter may not receive a better offer in the future, or that she could lose the chance of marrying at all. Marriage is almost universally accompanied by a dowry – a payment made to the bride’s new in-laws in exchange for taking her into their home. A new wife usually has little time for pursuits outside of domestic work and is also expected to produce a child within the first year of marriage, resulting in a high rate of early pregnancy.

For Yasna, avoiding such a scenario was a challenge. Her affiliation with SoFEA was critical to her success.

One of five children, Yasna grew up very poor in a rural community. Although her father, a rickshaw driver, does not have an education himself, he values education – even for his daughters. However, it was not easy for Yasna to remain in school. As she moved into higher grades, she had to travel longer distances to attend classes, and the associated costs – transportation and school-related fees – became increasingly difficult to afford.

But Yasna persevered and she will soon graduate high school. It was imperative that she had family support. It was also imperative that she valued her own education over the expected role her society casts for her – that of a wife and expectant mother, at times as young as 15 years old. Yasna explained that SoFEA helped to equip her with a different vision for her life. She learned to recognize the possibilities for herself as an income earner and contributing member of her society. This all has played a major role in her transition through adolescence and in shaping the person she is and wishes to become.

When we met, Yasna suggested that it is crucial for girls to internalize – and believe in – a different life for themselves. She said that many girls expect their parents to marry them off early. And daughters in turn expect the same for themselves, and remain accepting of their limited power to determine when and whom to marry.

SoFEA is making an effort to transform that. Yasna’s experience demonstrates the importance of an additional set of factors, not the least of which was parents’ dedication to her future. Particularly for impoverished families in communities where girls tend to be undervalued, it takes strength and sacrifice to allow daughters to stay in school.  After all, it’s an expensive prospect:  As one father explained, investing in a daughter’s education actually means investing in her twice – once for her schooling and again for her dowry. Many fathers decide that one investment is enough.

It is also important for girls to have strong social networks. Yasna repeatedly spoke about the material and emotional support her school friends have given her, which bolstered her own will to succeed. Finally, it takes agency: the perception within a young girl that it is possible to shift her life options and create a future that is decidedly different from the one that was written for her. Yasna attributes both her time in school and her experience with the SoFEA club with fostering that sense of self-worth and self-efficacy.

These may seem like small changes. But for adolescent girls in Bangladesh – and around the globe – they represent very powerful steps to growing into strong, productive, self-sufficient women.