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.
"My two favorite episodes are when I talk to a tree about my deep hopes to go back to school and when my parents eventually let me go back and my classmates cheer," Shimu said. "Those story lines were so nice."
Shimu's real-life story is as dramatic as any TV script. She said she doesn't know what happened to her father. When she was 4 1/2, her mother left her to marry a man who didn't want a child from a past relationship.
Her grandmother, frail and sick with stomach problems, took her in. But Shimu wandered around the Dhaka slums, often alone. A theater group for street children spotted her.
The plays that the group performed were straight from the children's own lives, stories about young people working in markets and as porters, or about orphans vulnerable to sexual exploitation.
Over the years, Shimu showed a natural ability to express genuine emotion in front of audiences, her theater director said.
"She had this capacity to deal with her life. And many of these children lead lives no child should ever have to experience," said Saju Mehedi Hassan, leader of the theater group, Children Without a Home. "Things we couldn't say directly about that type of suffering, she was able to say in acting."
In 2005, UNICEF recruited Shimu for an ensemble show promoting education for working children. That show became the top-rated program on state-owned television. Shimu was then chosen to be Alo, the main star of a new show, but her own problems did not diminish.
She had to drop out of school last year when her grandfather, a fisherman, wasn't making enough money to support her. Her grandmother sent her to live in a village with her uncle. Her appearances on television also increased the teasing and unwanted attention from boys.
Shimu was able to come back to Dhaka only after convincing her grandmother that she should keep studying so she could better support her family in the future.
Her friends at the theater group, where she still spends her afternoons, say they look up to Shimu because fame hasn't changed her. They also say they feel deeply connected to the story lines.
"It made me so upset when Alo stops going to school, since we all have friends in this situation," said Sujki Sun Mim, 13 and a fan of Shimu's. "My neighbor had to flee from her village in the rural areas because she was being forced to marry. She came to Dhaka to work as a maid. I always ask her over to watch the show. I really wish she could get schooling."
The story is also helping to educate boys.
Obaidor Rhaman Rabiul, 14, lives in the cramped basement used by the theater group. His father died recently, and his mother left. Hassan, the theater director, now watches over him.
"I love this drama because it's really like my life," said Obaidor, a gregarious boy with shaggy hair. "It also made me feel that it is better to study now and marry later. I have a friend who got married and was so unhappy because there was so much pressure to raise children, clean the house, make money. After watching 'Alo,' I want to be a director and help slum kids get on TV."
On a recent Sunday evening, Shimu sat in the tin-roofed, one-room home where she and her grandparents live together. There are two thin mattresses, one mosquito net, some pots and pans and a stack of Shimu's schoolbooks in the windowless room. "The storybooks are my favorites," Shimu said.
Even though Shimu is on television, her family does not own a TV set. She and her friends watch the show at the theater group's center.
Her grandfather, Mohamed Siddiq, 61, said he wants Shimu to stay in school but is worried that she may end up marrying or working, since their family is being evicted in a month and has no savings.
"We are illiterate. I really want Shimu to stay in classes," Siddiq said. "It's just so hard to survive here."
UNICEF workers recently started a fund to help the family relocate.
Shimu said that her hopes are the same as Alo's. "All I want is to continue schooling and acting. I don't want to get married until I am older," she said. "What makes me happy is when I think about when Alo gets back to school. Everyone is cheering and smiling. I love that scene."
Maybe it will work out and she won't have to drop out, she said. Just like on TV.