Plant future – Planting trees against social issues

Ein Bericht aus der Reihe: WO ENGAGIERT SICH START?
von START-Alumna Mechanaz Kabir:

Ich habe in den Sommerferien 7 Wochen in Bangladesch verbracht & dort so einiges Spannendes erlebt. Unter anderem kam unserem „district-governor“ zu Ohren, dass ich in Österreich so engagiert sei, und hat mich daher eingeladen mich an einem Projekt zu beteiligen.

Es ging darum Setzlinge zu pflanzen, um etwas gegen den Klimawandel zu unternehmen. Denn wenn die globale Temperatur weiterhin so steigt, wird Bangladesch bald nicht mehr existieren. Um auch Jugendliche mit dieser Botschaft zu erreichen sind wir durch Schulen getourt, haben Setzlinge verteilt & eingepflanzt. Außerdem haben wir die Gelegenheit genutzt um mit ihnen darüber zu sprechen, dass der Dschihad eigentlich nichts mit dem Islam zu tun hat, der falsche Weg ist, …

Auch haben wir über das Verbot der Kinderehen gesprochen, was mir besonders am Herzen lag. Die SchülerInnen hatten zugleich die Gelegenheit ihrem „district-governor“ persönlich zu zeigen, in welchem miserablen Zustand die Schulen teilweise waren & welche spezifischen Probleme die Schulen im Einzelnen haben.

Genaueres dazu hier in Mechis ausführlichem Bericht auf Englisch:

Plant future – Planting trees against social issues

Most of my peers spend their holidays earning money with summer jobs, spending quality time by the sea side or visiting friends and family. The latter was what I intended to do: visiting relatives in the country of my roots, Bangladesh. Yet, once again the saying “firstly things turn out differently secondly than you think” proves to be true. So instead of travelling the country of Bengal to visit friends and family I travelled it to visit schools, plant trees and raise awareness for global warming, terrorism and child marriages.

Devastating natural catastrophes
To start from scratch, since I was little, whenever somebody asked me to describe Bangladesh, I mostly answered with “Green. The country is so green, even the ponds are green over there.” However, this summer, I had to learn that only 14% of the country’s surface is covered with trees, whereas it has been said, even though it has been said, that one quarter of a country should be covered with plants to maintain the balance of CO2 Emissions. It is hard to imagine what extent these catastrophes could have with the accelerated sea level rise since Bangladesh isn’t only one of the world’s poorest nations but also the country most vulnerable to sea-level rise. The geographical location of Bangladesh and its geomorphic conditions have made the country easily vulnerable to natural disasters such as storm surges, floods, tropical surges, tornados, droughts and river bank erosions. The population has already been severely affected by events in the past which caused damage up to 100 km inland. It is estimated that a rise of 1, 5 m would inundate 16% of the country which would affect 15% of the Bengali population, respectively.

Plan(t)s to save the world – or at least a little part of it
One little deed among loads and loads of possibilities to counteract global warming is planting trees. Trees not only cool and moisten our air and fill it with oxygen, they also help balance the earth’s carbon budget. This is why the governor of our home district Mymensingh decided to initiate the project “plant future”. In order to reach out to a big part of the population, but especially the younger generation, he invited me to a cup of masala chai – what else? – to discuss the project in detail. At the end of the week and several cups of chai later we finally had a strategy on where our mission was headed.

Disguise in blessing – horrible school conditions
The basic concept was to tour from school to school. Each school got a certain amount of money beforehand, so they would be able to buy seedlings of various trees. Most of them were fruit trees, like jackfruits – the national fruit of Bangladesh, mangoes, starfruits, oranges and others. Then we planned a consultation with several schools, including everyone between small rural primary schools to big city colleges, to meet pupils, talk to and with them and plant the little trees together. They arranged beautiful dancing choreographies, recited famous poems, sung various songs and held amazing speeches of gratitude. What most of the schools didn’t miss out on either was to point out how miserable the facilities were. I was shattered to see in what conditions some schools were when I saw everything, from overcrowded classrooms over missing roads to schools to badly equipped or even non-existing restrooms. The governmental representatives were very zealous to note down the problems and promised to tackle them as soon as possible but in all honesty; I doubt that there will be any changes made concerning better school facilities any time soon.

Fighting against the “holy war”
However, our main motive was to tackle some severe problems in Bangladesh or at least raise awareness for them. This is why we had discussions about climate change, the greenhouse effect and what could be done against it. Yet, it’s not only global warming which is a serious matter. Youngsters from all over the globe are travelling to Syria to join the so called “holy war”, the jihad and Bangladesh and for Bangladesh it is not any different. Since 90% of the population’s confession is Islam the chances to be radicalised is even higher. So we talked to the kids and teens about Islam, the religion of peace. We told them that peace and blindfold killing do not align. Leaving their family who loves them for strangers who thrust for blood cannot be what God wants. Of course we did not only talk; we gave out numbers to call if someone had a sneaking suspicion that someone from their close circle is endangered.

Girls not brides
Nevertheless the recruiting for the jihad is a minor problem compared to child marriages. Despite it being illegal, Bangladesh has the highest rate of child marriage for girls under the age of 15 in the world. 65% of girls are married by their 18th birthday and 29% by the age of 15, according to UNICEF. What is more, though boys are sometimes married as children, girls are disproportionately the most affected.

A reason for the deep-rooted tradition are social implications. If a child doesn’t get married at an early age everyone in the community will talk about it. So not only to maintain family honour but also to keep women under control, girls are married at a very young age. But it’s not only the fear to lose the family’s honour, often other crimes such as rape are feared. For example, girls are not seen as eligible for marriage if they are not virgins. Moreover, unmarried girls may engage in illicit relationships. The fear, that the family might be unable to find a groom for grown women in their economic social group plays a great role as well. Extreme poverty may make daughters an economic burden on the family too, which may be solved by their early marriage. Poor often view marriage as a means to ensure their daughter’s financial security, particularly if she lacks family members to provide for her.
But these child brides are not only extradited to domestic violence and domestic rape, pregnancy and child birth can cause significant damage to their undeveloped body as well.
Even though there are organisations who are trying to stop child marriage, the laws are hard to enforce. The families circumvent the ban by making fake birth certificates, for instance.

Give it one more try
Despite those hope-breaking facts I had to do something against it. At least I had to try. Since I was a little girl I dreamt of fighting for girl’s and women’s rights as I realised pretty soon that in countries like Bangladesh the female gender was valued very little if at all. And with “plant future” I got a little closer to that dream. So while touring from school to school, we didn’t only speak about global warming and that the holy war was a crime against humanity, but also clarified that it is against the law to marry as a minor. If someone suspected to be married off, there are many ways to get help. We gave out numbers of organisations and also a representative of the government, who will first come undercover in civvies to assess the situation. If they remark that illegal actions are set, they first clear up the family about the legal situation since many of them are not even aware that there is really a law against child marriage. But if the dialogue does not bear fruits the father, brothers and the groom will be taken to jail. (It’s the male family members because females do not have a voice anyways.)  Or at least the family will have to pay high fines. But often it is not the punishment by law, which is feared most, but the dishonour the family will receive (higher level).

When the root is deep there is no reason to fear the wind
To put in a nutshell, I had a very exciting vacation in Bangladesh, where I could not only learn more about my roots but also plant many of them. I hope these planted trees will bear fruits and the addressed issues like global warming, bad school facilities, terrorism and child marriage will become a minor problem the next time I’ll visit my planted roots and trees.