Bangladeshi Child Star Hopes Life Will Mirror Art

By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, September 14, 2007

DHAKA, Bangladesh -- At just 13, Shimu is arguably the most beautiful girl in her neighborhood, with her pitch-black eyes and silver nose ring. But her playful pixie smile belies her adult-size problems: Her grandmother wants her to quit seventh grade and get married, and older boys who loiter in muddy alleys keep sending her notes, saying they will abduct her if she won't agree to wed.

"I feel depressed. But a lot of girls in the slums face the same pressures," said Shimu, who like many Bangladeshis does not have a last name.

Her plight is more extraordinary than most because she also happens to be the star of Bangladesh's most popular television drama, a 26-episode soap opera that promotes girls' education.

Shimu, a youthful Bangladeshi version of Winona Ryder, is recognized across the country for her moving role as the spunky 11-year-old heroine Alo. On Wednesday nights, more than 10 million viewers tune in after the 8 p.m. news to see her character put through the gantlet of family entanglements and financial strains that afflict many of the young girls in this desperately poor, densely populated South Asian nation. Alo must fight to stay in the fifth grade while her uncle demands that she work in a garment factory and other family members urge her to marry so they will have one less mouth to feed.

Teachers say that Shimu's photograph hangs in classrooms across the country on posters advertising the show and that her story has become a symbol of the struggle to keep girls in school.

The striking parallels between Shimu's real and fictional lives highlight the pervasive challenges of educating Bangladesh's children before they marry. This country has one of the highest rates of early marriage in the world, according to the United Nations and the Bangladeshi government's Health and Injury Survey. At the same time, early marriages -- often based on economic desperation rather than romance -- lead in many cases to suicide, the principal cause of death among teenage girls here.

"Sometimes I feel she should support me," said Shimu's grandmother, Ayesha, 49, who was herself married at 12. "Boys want to marry her. They are always harassing her. Even though she is known for her acting, it's very hard to make a living here. If she were married, we wouldn't have to worry about feeding her."

Shimu, usually talkative and confident, hunched her shoulders and mumbled: "It's better to stay in learning for the future. I want to try."

Deeply rooted customs combined with grinding poverty have long forced young women across South Asia out of classrooms and into early marriages. Boys and girls alike marry young here and in India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. But early marriage can be especially difficult for girls. Despite modern-sounding constitutions that enshrine equal rights for the sexes, girls and women are valued less. Their education comes second to that of their brothers; they are allowed to eat only after their brothers are done.

In Bangladesh, two in five girls ages 15 to 17 are married, even though the minimum age at which it is legal to marry is 18, according to UNICEF, the U.N. agency for children. Violence in such marriages is frequent. There are thousands of cases each year in Bangladesh in which child brides are drenched in acid for refusing sex, talking back to mothers-in-law or not doing enough housework, aid workers say.

As in Latin America's telenovelas and many African and South Asian TV dramas, story lines in Bangladeshi programs are often infused with messages decrying social ills such as child labor, domestic violence and early marriage. Many of the shows are low-budget productions funded by nonprofit organizations or the government. Shimu's show -- "Alo Amar Alo," which means "Light My Light" -- is funded by the Education Ministry and UNICEF; actors receive modest stipends.

The drama begins with a Dhaka film star coming to Alo's village to shoot a scene. The actress notices Alo weeping. Her parents want her to drop out of school. The actress befriends Alo and tries to help persuade the girl's parents to let her return to the classroom. Eventually, she does.

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