The Surprising Way Surfing Is Staving Off Child Marriage In Bangladesh

Photographed by Allison Joyce.
For most people, the beach brings to mind a pleasant vacation, sipping on a tropical juice in a hammock, or spending good times in the company of friends. However, for a group of eight young Bangladeshi girls between ages 11 and 14, the beach is the place where they were forced to work day and night selling goods in order to support their families.

These girls are from poor villages near Cox's Bazar, a shabby tourist resort on the longest uninterrupted sea beach in the world, in Southeast Bangladesh, a majority Muslim country of more than 160 million people. They dropped out of school before ever learning how to read or write.

But three years ago, their story started to change. In a country where women aren't encouraged to take up sports, these girls have done just that with the help of Rashed Alam, a local surf expert. Now, they are known as the "Bangladeshi surf girls" — and they're looking towards the future with a smile.

The girls are able to continue surfing thanks to a crowdfunding initiative, launched in 2015, that ensures them enough money for food and transportation — so they are no longer forced to work constantly. They continue to sell cheap, handcrafted jewelry and food items to tourists on the beach to make a living, but now they actually find time to hit the waves.

The initiative also gives these girls the resources to learn English and other useful skills. They may dream of becoming professional surfers and lifeguards one day, but what's more important is that they have been given the chance to regain part of their childhood and attain a basic education (a crucial factor in delaying the age at which they'll marry — after all, this society is one in which child marriage is all too common).

Read on to learn more about the way these inspiring girls are taking back their local beach.

It's your body. It's your summer. Enjoy them both. Check out more #TakeBackTheBeach, here.

Advertisement
1 of 15
Photographed by Allison Joyce.
Cox's Bazar is Bangladesh's top honeymoon and beach destination. The government has ambitious plans for the coastal region, and large resorts are being developed quickly.

The tradition of surfing in Bangladesh is linked to Cox's Bazar and dates to the mid-2000s. The American charity organization "Surfing The Nations" brought missionaries and surfboards to the country. Today, dozens of people surf here, including Sumi, Shobe Mejerez, and Johanara (pictured), three of the Surf Girls — and the beach now has a Lifesaving and Surfing Club.
2 of 15
Photographed by Allison Joyce.
The waters in this town of about 60,000 inhabitants are warm and safe: There are neither sharp rocks nor sharks that can attack the tourists and surfers. Here, Shobe Mejerez smiles on her board.

Bangladesh has the second-highest rate of child marriage in the world. In some rural areas, girls are married off as young as 9 years old because they are seen as a burden on their families. The widespread view is that men can earn a wage and women cannot.
Advertisement
3 of 15
Photographed by Allison Joyce.
"Surf is a very famous sport all over the world. It helps me soften my behavior and keep my life in balance. I meet new people and learn a lot from the rest of the surfing community. I never thought of doing this, but I have collected such wonderful experiences over these years, " says Sumi, 12. She is the only one of the eight surf girls who currently goes to school, and the only one who can fully read and write.
4 of 15
Photographed by Allison Joyce.
Johanara (left), 11, is one of the youngest in the group, but the eldest of six siblings in her family. "I love surfing and I love learning English. This will help me to save people in the future," she says. Her father is a painter and has an unpredictable income, so she has been helping to earn money for the family since a very young age. In the picture, she lies on her board with Aisha.
5 of 15
Photographed by Allison Joyce.
Suma (left), 14, is the strongest in the team. Her mentor says she can carry two boards at the same time and swim like a fish.

"After surfing, we rush to put makeup on. I love it. We look more beautiful, and it gives us a good feeling. I think it is very positive that people know more and more about the surf girls in Bangladesh. Hopefully there will be more girls like us one day," she says. Here, Suma poses with Johanara and Shobe Mejerez.
6 of 15
Photographed by Allison Joyce.
The girls started surfing in 2013. In the beginning of 2015, the American photographer Allison Joyce and Venessa Rude, also American, launched a crowdfunding initiative on GoFundMe. They had noticed that a series of strikes in the country were affecting tourism in Bangladesh. "It was not easy anymore for the girls to make money. We got a year of donations in about four months. I was surprised by the support. People were inspired by their story," Joyce recalls. With the funds raised, the girls are given food and money for transportation. As part of the initiative, they also learn English.

Here, Aisha, Suma, Sumi, Shobe Mejerez, and Johanara stand with their boards.

All the surf girls live in very poor villages near Cox's Bazar. They have to walk up the hills through the forest to reach their homes.
7 of 15
Photographed by Allison Joyce.
Horses painted with henna, tires used as rubber floats, groups of photographers armed with Nikon cameras, and endless rows of deck chairs by the shore: This is what the landscape of Cox's Bazar looks like. On weekends, the beach is crowded by the time the first rays of sun hit the sand, and it stays this way until late in the evening. Many villagers, taking advantage of the presence of tourists, do business on the beach. On a 50-meter stretch, you can see up to five children selling goods at the same time. Aisha, 11, is usually one of them. "I never had the chance to pursue my dreams. My life was reduced [to] selling cheap jewels, and my mother would get angry when I didn't make enough money. Surfing is helping me a lot, not only for my personal happiness, but also because many customers know me thanks to this," she says. Aisha sells sets of two earrings and a necklace for 20 Bangladeshi Taka each (around 0.25 USD).
Advertisement
8 of 15
Photographed by Allison Joyce.
"My friends are the most important thing for me. We have each other when we need support, and I miss them a lot when they are not with me," Aisha says.
9 of 15
Photographed by Allison Joyce.
Being a girl is not easy in Bangladesh. Girls have to constantly overcome the expectations and unwritten norms of a solidly patriarchal society. Girls above the age of 20 are often considered old and unfit for marriage, which is generally a girl's only realistic aspiration in life.

"Some guys say to us: 'Surfing is not for girls. You will soon get married and stay at home.' I tell them: 'Either you respect us, or we won't respect you,'" Sumi says. Sumi feels privileged for being the only one in her group who goes to school. "My favorite subject is math. I am good at it. But not very good at English."

She used to work selling boiled eggs. "On a big day, I can sell up to 150 eggs. Each egg costs 10 taka (0.12 USD). Maybe double this price if the tourist is a foreigner," Sumi laughs.
10 of 15
Photographed by Allison Joyce.
"I enjoy surfing a lot. Standing on the board, I feel freedom. My life was a complete routine before I started surfing in 2013. I had never had the chance to do sports like this, and initially, I hid it from my parents. They wouldn't approve. I will practice a lot, so maybe one day, I can become a professional surfer," says Maisha, 14.

"People gossip all the time, but I just don't care about it. My family was offered a couple of times already to arrange my marriage. Many girls get married in my village when they are 12 or 13. As a girl, there are many things we are not allowed to do. It scares me when I see how some women are treated. Sometimes, some people are very nice, and the next time, they are totally mean. I would love to travel abroad to see how girls and women live in other countries."
11 of 15
Photographed by Allison Joyce.
"I love it when I catch a big wave and am able to remain on the board for many seconds. Earlier, I was afraid of the water. Many people in Bangladesh don't know how to swim. Now, I don't imagine my life without surfing. I think I could help in the future by becoming a lifeguard and saving lives," Rifa, 12, says. "I attended school until I was six. I started coming to the beach to earn money for my family. We make earrings and necklaces out of plastic, shell, and wood. It is a big challenge to be a girl here. We have to constantly fight for our freedom."
12 of 15
Photographed by Allison Joyce.
Rashed Alam, 26, is the brain and engine behind what these girls are doing on the waves. His entire life revolves around the beach, where he runs a deck chair business. He met the girls on the beach and proposed to teach them surfing.

"In the beginning, they didn't even know how to swim, so I never left them alone. We practiced a lot. I went to the U.S. for awhile, but I missed them. I came back to Bangladesh only because of the girls. We are very attached to each other, despite not having a blood connection. My goal is that Bangladesh has a team of surfer girls," he says. He has also taught the girls lifesaving skills.

Rashed was the chairman of Cox's Bazar Lifesaving and Surfing Club until tensions arose with other surfers from the community. Some senior surfers have not accepted that the surf girls have gained popularity outside of Bangladesh.
Advertisement
13 of 15
Photographed by Allison Joyce.
The first time Californian Venessa Rude, 34, visited the beach at Cox's Bazar was back in 2009 with the non-profit organization Surfing The Nations. She continued to visit Bangladesh, and in 2015 she married Rashed. For the past few years, she has been teaching English to the surf girls. She and Rashed hope to soon be able to hire a private teacher to continue their education.

"I had seen how women are treated in Bangladesh and wanted to take a stand. The more I hung out with the girls, the more I realized they wanted to learn," she says. "I don't want to give the girls dreams they won't get. They have changed. They were shy in the beginning. Now, they are confident and have gained strength."
14 of 15
Photographed by Allison Joyce.
"Skating helps to learn how to keep the body in balance," Suma says, as she skates laps on the concrete floor of a public square.

"My dad abandoned my mum because she only bore him girls, and he wanted boys. I had to live for a while with his new wife; then, I worked as housekeeper at someone else's house, doing the dishes and cleaning. Surfing and skating means a lot to me," she says.
15 of 15
Photographed by Allison Joyce.
"When I started teaching, I tried to remember things I learned when I was a kid. The girls know about 150 words in English now. I am looking online for materials. I don't want to make it hard. I want it to be fun," Venessa says.

At first, Venessa led classes on the beach, but people harassed her and the girls; then, they moved to an abandoned watch tower, but it started falling apart. Now, they meet either at the restaurant of a hotel or at a nearby square. Venessa gives sweets to the winners of a geography quiz, asking questions such as, "Which is the biggest country in Asia and the smallest one?"

With the help of Venessa and Rashed, the Bangladeshi surf girls are building their own world. It's a hard fight, but a proud one.
Advertisement