RELIGIOUS leaders can play both positive and negative role for changing the lives of communities. For having leadership influence, long term community presence and reachability to the community people, they instantly can disseminate development massagers to a great number of people. At the same time, they may also oppose new thoughts and become barriers to social development. Social development is closely related with existing social norms. Research shows that harmful existing religious, traditional and cultural norms play a vital role for perpetuating detrimental traditional practices like promoting early marriage and violence against children. In the context of Bangladesh, engaging the religious leaders to increase awareness on child rights, positive disciplining, child labour and to influence cultural norms could be a very effective strategy.
Research shows that in Rajshashi district, 5 per cent of 10-14 years old children (boys: 8.6 per cent and girls 1 per cent) are engaged in child labour (2016). Another research shows, in Paba Upazila of Rajshashi District, 1.26 per cent and 12.71 per cent of the total children drop out of primary and secondary school respectively. About 72 per cent of the families had arranged early marriage of their daughters even before the age of 14 (2016).
Thus, with the goal of bringing positive changes in the lives of the children by utilising the influence of the religious leader, World Vision Bangladesh (an international faith based non governmental ogranisation) has implemented a Faith Led Child Development Project (2018-19) in three sub-districts (Paba, Tanore, Godagari) of Rajsahshi District. The project worked in three particular areas, children’s moral development, celebrating families and cultivating channels of hope for child Protection.
‘Celebrating Families’ is an unique component of capacitating parents, teacher, and children’s care giver, religious leaders and all the concerned stakeholders with updated information and knowledge regarding child protection in light of the morals of their own religion. For dissemination of the knowledge, 32 stakeholders including seven religious leaders were trained as the chief trainer. These chief trainers trained 292 religious leaders, teacher, social worker and members of village development committee. Besides, 2127 parents learnt about how to raise an ideal family through workshop. Most importantly, religious leaders conducted session for parents on proper child care.
Through the activities under this project, 173 religious leaders were trained and training module considered religious background of the trainee. Later the trained leaders from Community Hope Action Team committees worked towards the moral development of children. This committee already supported 1118 vulnerable and poor children and 3816 families became aware on the parent’s responsibilities toward children and all forms of abuse and violence against children. About 2,026 people were made aware of child protection issues during the Friday prayer. One religious leader said, ‘I preach about child protection, child abuse, child marriage from religious perspective in mosque two times in a month during Jumma.Besides, I share the message in mass gathering such as Eid Ul Fitr, Eid Ul Adha prayers. ’
So far, 458 incidents of physical violence and violence against children were prevented by this CHAT committee. 408 child marriages were stopped through increased awareness of the parents or informing the local law enforcement agency or local government representatives. Thus CHAT committee became a platform for raising their voice against all sorts of violence against children.
Ruma Khatun (class six) is one among these 408 children. Her parents arranged her marriage. When marriage registered identified that the would be bride was a child, the registered called the CHAT committee members. They informed the Local Union Parishad Chairman and finally Police was called to stop the wedding ceremony. In addition, they worked for increasing awareness on the negative impact of child marriage among the parents. After counselling the girl is now going to school again and continuing her studies.
However, engaging religious leaders in development activities often a cumbersome task. For instance, when religious leader Taher of a madrasa of Soronjai Union was invited to get involved in the project, he refused to engage with a Christian organisation. Even, he discouraged his students and their guardians from supporting WVB. However ‘Faith Leaders Catalysing’ meeting on child rights and child protection facilitated by trained religious leaders transformed his perspective. He recognised that empowering most vulnerable children with the values of religion is exactly the same mission he believes in. Currently, he is working as one of the CHAT committee members and actively supporting children’s cause.
In Bangladesh, religious leaders spread superstitious beliefs and misinterpreted explanation from religious texts that help perpetuating the harmful norms responsible for child abuse. However, the story from the project reveals again that the potential and knowledge of the religious leaders could be a key asset for social development, if they are guided and trained properly.
Bipasha Dutta is the national coordinator of knowledge management, research and innovation at World Vision Bangladesh.