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Girls speak out at World Water Forum in Mexico City
DHAKA, Bangladesh, 15 March 2006 – Dolly Akter has a simple theory: “Life is for help.” The 16-year-old will have a chance to help and influence many people this week when she takes part in the Children’s World Water Forum in Mexico City.
Dolly was selected from among 6,000 adolescent girls involved in a UNICEF project to improve environmental sanitation, hygiene and water supply in urban slums. As one of more than 100 young people representing over 30 nations at the forum, she will give a presentation about her leadership role in an adolescent girls’ hygiene-monitoring group. The group has begun to transform her slum neighbourhood in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh.
“Before, it was such a dirty and undeveloped area,” says Dolly. “Nowadays it is different. We try to develop our area quickly through our work.”
Dolly and her friends go from house to house checking that people are washing their hands after defecation and before eating, using sanitary latrines and drinking only clean, covered water. Improved hygiene behaviours and new latrines in the neighbourhood have halved the incidence of diarrhoea. And Dolly says the slum’s children laugh and play more now that they are healthier.
Watching neighbours change their habits has boosted the girls’ confidence and emboldened them to take on other social issues, such as under-age marriage. In Bangladesh, nearly two-thirds of young women are married before they turn 18.
The group has helped to stop three under-age marriages so far. One girl’s stepfather decided she should marry because it was too expensive to send her to school. The girl, Shita, was just 13. The group had no success in simply talking to the stepfather, and finally the police were called in. The marriage was stopped, but Shita has not been able to continue her studies. She is now a domestic worker, one of the most vulnerable forms of child labour.
Dolly is quick to point out that most parents in the area have been more supportive than Shita’s stepfather. Dolly’s own mother, Parveen Begum, was just 13 when she married and 15 when her daughter was born. “We don’t want our children to get married so young,” she says. “We got married early and then we faced lots of health problems.”
Dolly’s family has also benefited from her work. “If Dolly learns more, then our family learns more,” explains her father, Mohammad Babul. “We don’t get diarrhoea any more. Our family always knows about hygiene and being clean, so we don’t get sick.”
According to Mr. Babul, the hygiene project has given Dolly more confidence to talk to people and share her ideas. “When she comes back from Mexico, she will have learned more from there and she will also share with people the things that she learns,” he says.
Dolly is indeed looking forward to sharing her experiences. “After the water forum, then we can do more work for our country, and our life.”
The trip will also give the 12th-grade student more fodder for her favourite pastime. “I like to write songs,”’ says Dolly. “I write about my Bangladesh, my experiences in our poor life.”