TWELVE MILLION GIRLS under the age of 18 get married every year.
Discover why these three didn’t.

Adaya*, Cristina and Sandra each have unique passions and pursuits, from martial arts to marine biology. But they all agree that early and forced marriage isn’t part of their plan. Yet, 12 million girls under the age of 18 get married every year. How did Adaya, Cristina and Sandra escape this harmful practice that is difficult to avoid for millions of girls? Read on to find out.

What Is Early and Forced Marriage and Why Does It Happen?

Early and forced marriage is a violation of children’s human rights that occurs worldwide. It is the coerced union of a child under the age of 18 to an adult or another child, often between a girl and a man much older than her.

Many families turn to this longstanding custom to ease financial strains (freeing up more food and funds for the family) or for traditional reasons (like avoiding community ostracization for rejecting customs). It is a form of gender-based violence that takes girls from their families and their schooling and pushes them into situations that their young minds and bodies aren’t ready for, like childbirth and motherhood. Learn more about it here.

Karate Kid
Adaya blocked her arranged marriage.


Adaya probably knows how to do sitauke, ushiro-geri and hiza uke, but knowing these karate moves isn’t the only reason this 16-year-old Bangladeshi girl stands out. She is also an advocate for stopping early marriage.

“I had to stop my studies due to extreme poverty,” Adaya says, explaining that her father lost his job amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

During that time, Adaya learned that her own marriage was looming. “The middle of last year, my family had decided to give me in marriage and hid it from me,” she recalls. Bangladesh has the world’s fourth-highest rate of early and forced marriage at 59%.

Around the same time, Adaya learned about Plan International Canada’s Combatting Early Marriage in Bangladesh (CEMB) project. It is funded by Because I am a Girl supporters in partnership with the Government of Canada. The project strives to help teen girls like Adaya protect themselves from this type of gender-based violence.

Thankfully, the training and support Adaya received from the project helped her block her impending marriage.“I told my mother that I was still a child, according to my age.” she says. “I also informed the CEMB project staff, and they came to my house and talked to her.” Adaya’s mother changed her mind with some persuasion from the Child Marriage Prevention Committee, who helped explain how this practice holds tremendous danger and has damaging effects.

Adaya describes her involvement in the CEMB project as the “story of [her] comeback.” Today she’s back in school, making her own decisions and confidently lobbying officials to oppose early marriage. “I always wanted to learn self-defence techniques,” she says. “After learning karate through this project, I am more confident than ever.”

Later, Adaya was able to help a friend who was facing a similar situation. “We warned [her guardians] that we would inform the local law-enforcement authorities, and so they cancelled the marriage and my friend was saved,” she says.

Two black belts demonstrate moves to girls practising karate and self-defence in a class provided through Plan International Canada’s Combatting Early Marriage in Bangladesh project, run in partnership with the Government of Canada and Because I am a Girl supporters. A group of girls practise stances in a karate self-defence class provided through Plan International Canada’s Combatting Early Marriage in Bangladesh project, run in partnership with the Government of Canada and Because I am a Girl supporters.

A drawing showing the results of the Combatting Early Marriage in Bangladesh project, run by Plan International Canada in partnership with the Government of Canada. It says, “Since the start of this project, 54,300 parents were educated on how to prevent child marriage and promote girls’ equality; 8,400 out-of-school adolescents learned about their rights to equality, protection and sexual and reproductive health 162 adolescent girls, like Adaya, practised self-defence; 2,700 young men, women and parents have learned self-employment skills; 2,300 farming entrepreneurs received support through the purchase of livestock and farming tools.

Study Time
Cristina is walking to school, not down the aisle.


A photo of CristinaGrowing up, Cristina went to school and played with her classmates – until she had to drop out to help financially support her family. Over 60% of people in Mozambique are living below the poverty line.

One day, Faizal*, an older wealthy man from their community, offered to marry Cristina.

Cristina’s mother agreed to the marriage because she had been raised to see marriage as a way to gain stability and financial security. But then she changed her mind.

As it happened, both she and Faizal participated in discussion groups provided through the Healthy Women and Girls project, run by Plan International Canada in partnership with the Government of Canada. The project, funded by Because I am a Girl supporters, worked to improve girls’ and women’s access to health services like prenatal care and family planning. It also supported their right to choose whether and when to marry and have children.

During the 10-week program, the adult group explored the importance of gender equality; sexual, reproductive and maternal health; and – critically – the harmful outcomes for young girls forced into marriage. Cristina’s mother and Faizal agreed to cancel the marriage once they both realized what was at stake for Cristina.

Today, Faizal continues to share what he learned with friends and family, hoping the decision to call off his marriage will inspire others to do the same. With her mother’s and her community’s support, Cristina has returned to school and, like most teenage girls, is figuring out how she wants her life to unfold.

A photo of Cristina, who avoided an arranged marriage with support from the Healthy Women and Girls project run by Plan International Canada in partnership with the Government of Canada and Because I am a Girl supporters.

Results of the Healthy Women and Girls project:

Girls aged 15 to 17 who were married


35% 35%


16% 16%

How we made it happen

  • Faciliated conversations about the negative impacts of child marriage with youth, women’s and men’s groups
  • Engaged community leaders and members to share key mesages about gender equality to challenge and shift social and cultural norms
  • Supported local organizations and youth in advocating for sexual and reproductive health rights and lobbying against child marriage
  • Launched “pinkification” campaigns in Maputo, Maxixe and inhambane with billboards, murals and buses painted pink that urged community members to “say no to child marriage”
  • Established or improved processes for community members to report cases of child marriage and gender-based violence.

Higher Education
Sandra ended a generational cycle of early marriage.


Sandra stands in a garden in Ecuador and shows off the medal she won for public speaking.“I am the first in my family to [have studied] at university,” says Sandra, 23. She majored in marine biology at Universidad Estatal Península de Santa Elena in Ecuador. She grew up near the sea, but it wasn’t an easy upbringing – or road to becoming a marine biologist.

“My mother had me when she was 15,” Sandra says. “She suffered domestic violence. I saw my dad beat my mum because the food wasn’t good or because he didn’t like it.”

“My grandmother’s story is similar,” Sandra continues. “She didn’t graduate from high school. [She] got married, but [her husband] was an alcoholic and beat her.”

Eventually, both women escaped their violent marriages, but Sandra didn’t want to become the next generation of women suffering in her family. “My grandmother insisted that I explore new horizons,” she says.

Sandra looks at the ocean view near her home in Santa Elena, Ecuador.
Sandra sits on a beach in Ecuador and prepares her diving equipment.

For 12 years, Sandra took part in Plan International projects, where she honed her leadership skills to advocate against gender-based violence. “I have participated in forums with ministers of state and forums on teenage pregnancy and been on advisory councils, and [I] was even part of the university scholarship program, which allowed me to get my degree in biology,” she says.

“Since I am the first professional in the family, I feel I have to push my cousins to pursue school because [an] education is the best thing you can get. I tell them that this is the way to be independent – without the need for marriage.”

“Being under the sea is unlike anything you know,” Sandra says about her profession. “The colours are different, there are unusual shapes, and organisms move in a distinctive way. You are in someone else's territory, and you must respect it.”

Thank you, Sandra, for teaching us about the importance of having respect for everyone and everything – below and above the water – and to Adaya and Cristina for having the courage to say no to child marriage in the face of overwhelming odds.

*Name has been changed to protect the individual’s privacy.

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