“For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” Ephesians 6:12
On some level, human actions have caused almost all poverty and suffering in the world today. Whether it be due to political corruption or war or lingering consequences of harsh colonialism, nearly insurmountable circumstances now grip over a billion people around the world in extreme poverty, half of them children. Certainly there are natural disasters outside of mankind’s control that strike with a fury, but the recovery is always more complicated where the basics of life are already compromised by poverty and oppression.
Bangladesh—formerly East Pakistan, formerly an Indian province under British colonial rule, formerly part of Genghis Khan’s Persian conquest—is still reeling from centuries of oppression. Independence finally came on December 16, 1971, when the Pakistani army surrendered, but only after committing atrocities paramount to genocide against the Bengali people. Bangladesh has not yet recovered.
I traveled with a delightful group of World Vision supporters and staff to Bangladesh this past November to learn about World Vision’s child protection work. I admit, the statistics I’d been reading had painted a bleak picture in my mind of a depraved land. Consider these startling facts about Bangladesh:
• More than two hundred girls are trafficked into brothels every day.
• Up to fifty boys a day are trafficked into India to harvest their eyes, kidneys, and other organs in the black market.
• Ten percent of all underage children are forced to work long hours in the garment and fish industries, foregoing their education.
• Forty-three percent of the Bangladesh population lives below the poverty line.
• Thirty percent of girls are married before age fifteen, and sixty-five percent are married before the legal age of eighteen.
• Although it’s illegal to require a dowry, the practice of the bride’s family paying a dowry to the groom’s family is becoming more prevalent, not less.
• Over half of all married women suffer domestic violence, and tragically, half of those actually believe that it’s justified.
• This traditionally gender-biased society denies women and girls equal rights in families and in civil society, and thus they lack control over things like their own healthcare.
While there are laws in place to protect women and children from violence and trafficking, very few cases are reported and fewer are prosecuted. And while Bangladesh is taking steps to end corruption and improve the status of women and children, they are slow to resource and implement their plans. Thus, families continue on, perpetuating old traditions, imposing the same harmful practices on their own children that they themselves experienced. It’s a vicious cycle. If a mother married early, chances are her daughter will also. If a man worked in the fish market as a young boy, that is often his son’s fate as well.
The good news is this gloomy picture is changing. Indeed, a new story filled with hope is unfolding in Bangladesh, thanks to World Vision and all of you who support their work with your gifts and prayers.
We met a beautiful fifteen-year-old sponsored girl named Akhi Akter. She and her mother joined us for lunch one day. Akhi has been a World Vision sponsored child for ten years. She wants to be a teacher when she grows up. She enjoys school and runs the library as a volunteer at one of World Vision’s community centers.
Akhi’s story is just one example of how World Vision is changing the future for a generation of young people. Akhi’s education has consisted of more than history and math. She explained, “I learned about early marriage. We learned how it happens, especially to poor parents. When parents can’t afford a girl they plan an early marriage. They always want boys.”
“Mothers believe,” she continued, “if I give birth to a girl, I am a bad wife. Sometimes there is a dowry. If the family can’t afford to pay it, then the husband’s family tortures the girl. Sometimes girls commit suicide.”
“And young wives turn into young mothers,” said Akhi. “When the girl has a child—she is still a child herself. She can’t take care of the child.” Akhi added, “I will depend on my parents to help choose my husband. He must be honest and willing to help the poor.”
Akhi’s mother, Jesmin, sells traditional embroidery work, and Akhi’s father is a driver who earns approximately $2.50 per day. “Akhi is in school now,” Jesmin said. “If World Vision didn’t help us through sponsoring my daughter, we could not afford her education. If we couldn’t send her to school, she would have to work as a house cleaner or in a garment factory. The girls who are house cleaners are not treated well either,” she said.
Jesmin gazed at her daughter with pride in her eyes and continued, “Her life will certainly be different than mine.”
Jesmin then shared her own story. She told us that she had been married young—at age 11—and gave birth to Akhi when she was only 12 years old. And she worked as a house cleaner. “The house lord would beat me if I broke a glass or during ironing I made a small mistake,” she said.
When Akhi first heard her mother’s story, she wept. Akhi is grateful that child sponsorship is keeping her from the same life, but she is saddened to know her own mother had to suffer such hardship.
Awareness education, such as Akhi has completed, is just one piece of World Vision’s comprehensive child protection work. This work is opening the minds and hearts of an entire nation to a new worldview where children and women are valued and protected, where wrongs are being made right, where life in all its fullness is becoming a reality.
The rest of our week in Bangladesh, as we learned about other aspects of World Vision’s work to protect children from exploitation for sex and labor, we were the grateful recipients of many more stories. We wept with those who are still suffering in difficult circumstances. We rejoiced with those who have found their way out of the darkness. We connected through the universal language of hugs and smiles, and we promised to remember them all in our prayers.