During International Women’s Day 2017, Save the Children launched a campaign called #GirlChampions to celebrate the contribution of six girls all around the globe. These girls played an exceptional role in women’s empowerment in their respective countries and also working hard to establish women’s rights. Moni Begum of Sylhet was selected to represent not only Bangladesh but of Asia in this campaign. Sheikh Sadaf Tasin writes about Moni Begum’s journey as girl champion.
This is one of those fairytale stories which one might find difficult to believe. The teenage daughter of rickshaw puller Morom Ali and his wife Hawa Begum residing all her life in a remote village, Kulaura in Sylhet district visited the hustling, bustling New York City to attend the United Nations General Assembly. No! This is not an extract from a Disney film or story book. This is the story of Moni Begum.
Moni is the youth champion Save the Children’s. She is advocating for ending child marriage and increasing access to basic health services for all. It is a big challenge, in a country where 66 per cent of the girls are married off below the age of 18. Moni got her opportunity to express herself back in 2015 when she was selected to represent the youth of Bangladesh at the UNGA after being rigorously assessed amongst 180 other youth leaders. She made it to the top 15 shortlist and underwent another round of assessment in Dhaka. She was then successfully selected for UNGA 70 for which she underwent a further 7 days of training at Save the Children office to prepare herself. She was worthy of selection because of her contribution in prevention of child marriage advocating for access to care and her strong motivation for community mobilization and improving community people’s lives through her advocacy. She made her journey across the Atlantic for New York in September 2015. Before leaving she met Fazle Rabbi Miah, the honourable deputy speaker of Bangladesh parliament. On behalf of the children of Bangladesh, she expressed her appreciation in a letter to the government for achieving MDG 4.
She had an enlightening and eventful time at the UNGA. Moni presented her slogan #LetHerGrow there. This refers to the necessity of any girl having access to basic education, health care to reach her full potential and preventing child marriage would play a vital role in it. She spoke about the ill effects of child marriage and how it stops the development of young girls. ‘Instead of getting married in their teens, girls should be encouraged to grow and educate themselves because they have immense potential in the future Bangladesh,’ says Moni. ‘They need the support of the society and their families to grow with equal opportunity,’ she adds. Moni also presented issues like high mortality rate among children from preventable diseases such as pneumonia and diarrhoea and the epidemic of drowning.
Moni also met 19 other child delegates from countries across the globe including Tanzania, Zambia, Norway, China, Peru, Denmark, Australia, USA and Afghanistan. Even though there was a language barrier as English was not first language of her and the other delegates, it did not stop her from becoming good friends with them and getting to know about the issues in their respective countries. She got to know how children are used for drug trafficking in Mexico from another delegate named Flora. She also came to know about eve teasing and bullying in schools in Italy, lack of quality education in Afghanistan, climate change issues that cause breathing problems for many children across China and more.
She went to the launch of UNICEF’s #WeThePeople media youth hub at the UN. Pope Francis and Malala Yousafzai were present there. She also met Save the Children CEOs from US, UK, Canada and talked about eradicating child marriage. She also enjoyed a performance by Colombian pop star Shakira over there.
‘Moni voiced millions of children of Bangladesh at the UNGA. She is bold, enthusiastic and outspoken to communicate the aspirations of her peers to the leaders of the global community. She is a champion in her community to prevent child marriage and promote universal access to healthcare, ‘says Tahrim Ariba Chaudhury from Save the Children in Bangladesh. Her trip to New York got special attention throughout all platforms of social media which was unprecedented. Out of all the Save the Children delegates present at the event Moni’s story was made into a documentary by the Japanese news TV channel by NHK.
Upon her return, the mayor of Kulaura and local member of the parliament visited her. They congratulated her on her achievements. She now works with the local government to prevent child marriage. Events are organised in her locality to raise awareness amongst the local population about the ill-effects of child marriage, benefits of educating the female children and prevention of child deaths. She has helped girls to be back in schools and has stopped several child marriages in her society. She continues her work as an advocate for change and has been engaging herself with social work in her community.