By Jahin Rahman, founder of the nonprofit EYDB, and leader of the student team that won the Citi Foundation Gender Equality Challenge in the 2019 NFTE World Series of Innovation with their idea for EMERG

I am the founder of a nonprofit named Efforts in Youth Development of Bangladesh (EYDB), a student-led organization that aims to provide educational and developmental support to the marginalized slum youth of Bangladesh. We conduct monthly projects such as launching literacy programs and building bathrooms, computer labs, libraries, and daycare centers in small rural schools in impoverished communities. Through this work with EYDB, I have realized that young girls from these under-resourced villages are at great risk.

Developing South Asian nations cannot achieve social and economic prosperity when a large portion of the population is denied the opportunity to contribute. Yet this is the reality for rural Bangladeshi girls who become domestic servants because their families cannot afford to keep them in school. When employed in urban households, these girls earn an average monthly salary of 1000 takas (approximately 12 U.S. dollars) and serve as a source of income for their families despite their young age. Once they reach their late teens, their servitude is halted so they can be taken back to their native villages. Forced marriage and domestic violence are not anomalies, but rather the dangerous reality as a result of depriving these young girls of their fundamental right to education and self-empowerment.

Earlier this month, my EYDB team was named the winner of the Citi Foundation Gender Equality Challenge in NFTE’s annual World Series of Innovation (WSI). We’re proud of the win but, more importantly, excited to raise awareness of our winning idea to help at-risk women and girls. Our WSI entry proposed a framework for reducing or eradicating female domestic child labor in Bangladesh, the country where I am originally from.

Many Americans may be unfamiliar with the term “domestic child servants.” Approximately 420,000 underage Bangladeshi girls and young women fall into this category, and 90% are between the ages 9 and 18. They grow up in rural villages, then migrate to urban centers – such as the capital city of Dhaka – to serve as domestic workers, and they do so at the expense of their liberty. Though many of these girls often display an interest in going to school and pursuing a future career, they lack educational opportunities. Our solution targets child domestic servants from Rangpur, an impoverished Northern Bangladeshi village with child labor conditions that can only be described as abysmal by United Nations development standards.

My nonprofit, EYDB, works to provide quality education to at-risk youth in Bangladesh by developing paths towards social sustainability for the next generation. Our WSI team contemplated innovative ways to reduce or eradicate domestic child labor. The socioeconomic dynamics of Bangladesh and other South Asian countries can only be improved if young girls are able to pursue an education. Ultimately, we developed the idea for “Emerge,” a training program that would give adolescent girls, who would otherwise be working as domestics in cities like Dhaka or Chittagong, an opportunity for education and training in their native villages. Currently, parents refuse to send daughters to public schools, let alone pay for their education. Daughters are expected to contribute to the family income by working as domestic servants before they are married. However, what would happen if the girls could earn through education? That is our idea: a simple, practical way to provide quality education and vocational training to rural Bangladeshi girls while also freeing them from domestic child labor.

The idea for Emerge is informed by field research I did recently in Bangladesh. During my trip, I interviewed students and faculty at UCEP Bangladesh, a non-governmental organization that’s been a pioneer in technical and vocational education and training (TVET) and skills development. UCEP promotes social inclusion and focuses on helping women, children, and youth from impoverished, underprivileged families. UCEP students have traditional academic schooling in the morning and TVET in the afternoon. Technical trades represented range from automobile engineering to culinary arts to refrigeration and air-conditioning.

Talking to girls from UCEP, I came to understand that one of the major reasons they enrolled was the 90% job placement rate for program graduates. The girls found it enormously beneficial that, along with academics, they were almost guaranteed job placement through TVET at this non-traditional school. However, there was one big difference between the girls enrolled in UCEP and domestic child laborers of Bangladesh: the families of these girls supported their education. The families of the girls my WSI team wanted to help clearly depend on the financial support gained from child labor.

I also interviewed girls in Dhaka currently employed as domestic workers. In fact, our video submission for the final round of WSI used video footage I captured on this trip to Dhaka. One of our 10 year old interviewees stated, “My elder sister was married off, and my mom is extremely sick. I have to send money to the village every month.” Another questioned, “I was a topper until the third grade, but what is the purpose of going to school when you cannot fulfill your stomach?”

When I returned to New York, I shared my research with my WSI team and we modified our solution. Our nonprofit organization, EYDB, is completely student-run and conducts fundraising to finance our projects. We decided to implement our concept for the Emerge program as a project of EYDB and to launch Emerge as the first-of-its-kind entrepreneurial endeavor in Rangpur.

Emerge will be a stipend-based program through which girls, who would otherwise have to migrate to Bangladesh to engage in domestic labor, can pursue a quality education from their native villages while financially supporting their families. We’ve contacted NGOs such as Agami, Universal Help Hub (UHH), and Apon—that aim to provide Bangladeshi children with a quality education—and have gained their agreement to help us. Many of these organizations are led by student volunteers from prestigious Bengali institutions such as the University of Rangpur and the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology who make month-long expeditions to rural villages.

These university students will be incorporated into our project. They’ve agreed to conduct daily sessions in village schools for rural girls, teaching mathematics, science, English, and Bengali. To compensate families for sending their daughters to these educational sessions, a monthly payment of about $20 (approximately 1,700 takas) will be made. This will be appealing to parents as their daughters will stay at home rather than migrate to Dhaka as domestic servants. The student volunteers will also hold weekend sessions for farmer parents about the demand for female education.

In addition, we’ve reached out to organizations that provide vocational training to youth. These companies can help supply materials and skilled mentors to train girls in sewing, computers, and business management—allowing the girls to acquire the vocational skills needed to compete in the job market while completing their education.

Few social projects in Bangladesh target rural teens girls who serve as domestic servants. Often, these initiatives are not sustainable. We believe this is because they don’t have a holistic approach. Motivating parents to educate daughters is noble, but it isn’t enough. Our idea offers families financial security. Through Emerge, students will not only get academics but also train to pursue a future career. This can persuade parents to let girls enroll in school in hopes of obtaining job training that will allow them to support their families financially in the future. For girls, honing a craft is a preferable choice to being labeled a liability and forcefully married off. Parents will be convinced through the weekend sessions with our volunteers and our volunteers will also undertake projects such as repairing the roofs of students’ houses. Other initiatives such as this have sometimes failed due to lack of teacher training. But our mentors will be volunteers drawn from prestigious universities who have the ability as well as the commitment to see that girls in the program can pass the board exams needed to enroll in higher studies.

EYBD has been speaking at conferences in the United States and will continue to raise visibility for Emerge in this way. We’re now working with NYC Department of Education officials and seeking student sponsors to financially support our initiative. At the same time, we’re developing creative business partnerships with global organizations such as Agami and will be developing a cohort for Emerge through interested companies such as Girls Opportunity Alliance and Girls Up United Nations Foundation.

With education and awareness, Bangladeshi girls can speak up against child marriage in villages and achieve independence and humane self-determination. One day an Emerge student may become the first doctor in her village or travel to Dhaka to pursue a law career. Who knows, she might even be Time Magazine’s Entrepreneur of the Year.