From being chased by sticks by an angry mob to being included in BBC 100 women 2022, Sanjida’s constant battle against child marriage is an awe-inspiring tale of bravery, tenacity and integrity.
On an April morning in 2014, Sanjida Islam Choya, an eighth-grade student of Nandail Pilot Girls High School, was doing chores at her home in Nandail in Mymensingh. Three school students rushed to Sanjida and informed her that the parents of Jui, a ninth-grade student, arranged a marriage.
These three students came to her because Sanjida Islam Choya was then involved with a non-government organisation’s child forum. The forum creates awareness among children about child rights, dowry and child marriage and what steps should be taken. They thought Sanjida could do something to stop Jui’s marriage.
“Then I went to our [school’s] head sir with those girls, went to UNO office and police station and taking their permission, we went to the Jui’s home,” Sanjida shared with The Business Standard the first case of stopping child marriage.
They went to Jui’s house disguised as potato buyers as Jui’s farmer father would cultivate and would sell potatoes. They saw a yellow shari-clad Jui sitting there. Today was her ‘gaye halud’.
“Then I called the local councillor and succeeded in stopping Jui’s marriage. The local police called the local councillor and asked him to help us. We called the police if we fell into trouble,” remembers Sanjida.
Over the last seven years, Sanjida Islam Choya and 6 other classmates successfully stopped around 50 child marriages under the organisation Ghasforing. For her contributions, Sanjida was included in BBC’s list of 100 inspiring and influential women worldwide for 2022.
Other noteworthy inclusions were Billie Eilish, the global music sensation, Olena Zelenska, the first lady of Ukraine, Priyanka Chopra Jonas, Alla Pugacheva, the record-breaking triple jump athlete Yulimar Rojas, and Ghanaian author Nana Darkoa Sekyiamah.
“I am feeling great. It is a huge achievement because we [seven girls] started the activities, I am one of the 100 women, so it’s a big achievement,” said Sanjida on Wednesday noon when she was busy dealing with journalists at her home in the Jhawgora village in Achargoan Union, Nandail.
Sanjida Islam Choya is a first-year honours management student at Gurudayal Govt. College now. She has dedicated the achievement to the rest of the members of the group: Jannatul, Jannat, Tabassum, Shayama, Tuli and Snhea.
How it all began
Sanjida’s mother Liza Akhter was a victim of child marriage. Her mother was married when she was only 15 years old. Because of her mother’s early marriage, her mother could not continue her studies. But she dreamt of self-dependence and sufficiency. And her willpower pushed her to a secondary school certificate degree even after her marriage. But that’s where it ended.
“Soon after her marriage, I was born and my mother now says that she did not feel any affection for me and she could not know how to take care of me as a baby,” said Sanjida.
Her mother fell ill most of the time. Sanjida believes that her mother – now only 38 years old – is always sick because of her early marriage. She does not want to see another girl become a victim of child marriage.
“I don’t want to live a life with an uncertain future like my mother, I want to be self-dependent,” said Sanjida,
She said that she now wants to complete her studies first and wants to get a job, and she wants to go abroad because she likes travelling.
“If you are not economically self-dependent, you cannot be socially self-dependent, and to be that you will have to study and get a good job,” said Sanjida.
The challenges she had to face
Stopping child marriage in a rural area like Nandail in Mymensingh is an uphill task for a group of seven school girls. Understandably, the last seven years were not always a pleasant experience. Sometimes she had to call Upazila Nirbahi Officer (UNO), and other times the local police to stop the child marriage from taking place.
Firstly, she would receive threats. When people could not manage Sanjida, they would put pressure on their parents to put an end to her ‘shenanigans’.
“Many of them even cursed me that I will never get married,” said Sanjida.
In the beginning, her father Aminul Islam Bhuyan, a government employee, was not particularly in favour of Sanjida’s initiative. Her father did not want her to make enemies so she had to continue her campaign secretly. On the other hand, her mother would always encourage her to keep up the good work.
In 2019, Sanjida found it very challenging to stop child marriage in her area. She shared one such incident.
One of the families held a big wedding ceremony and slaughtered a large cow to celebrate Sanjida as the other girls went there to persuade the family not to marry their daughter off at such a young age.
But the family members came with bamboo sticks to attack them. They fled the scene and came back again with the police. The family members even tussled with the police.
Sanjida and her colleagues went at night to stop child marriage. Sanjida said that one family arranged a marriage in the morning. They stopped the marriage. But they again arranged the marriage at night thinking that they would not come again. But Sanjidas went there and stopped the marriage.
“As my mother was a victim of a child marriage, she always encourages me,” said Sanjida. “But at one stage my father understood that what I am doing is not anything wrong, so he let me do what I do.”
Sanjida had to face the problem socially too and become somewhat of an outcast to her own extended family. She was not invited to marriage ceremonies in her area for fear that she could spell trouble for them.
“There was a marriage ceremony for my cousin but they did not invite me fearing I would somehow stop the marriage,” said Sanjida. “People are always scared of me.”
She said that the number of child marriages has come down to zero now. The village has been declared a child marriage-free village five months ago.
Sanjida had been one of the members of the Child Forum of World Vision in the area. And people, especially young adults, are aware of Sanjida and her organisation Ghasforing’s campaign against child marriage.
Consequently, whenever anyone hears or observes a child marriage being arranged, they call Sanjida or her colleagues. The juniors of her school also who live in different parts of the village also alert her about child marriage.
Sanjida observed that poor parents marry their daughters off mainly for three reasons. One is an economic condition. Poor parents cannot take care of all their children equally. As a result, they want to marry them off at a young age. There is also social proclivity. People in the villages want to marry off their daughters when they are young. Another reason is religion.
Sajnida wants to marry after being established in her career. Her parents do not force her to get married and they want to leave the decision to her.