With nearly 1 in 2 girls married off before the age of 18*, South Asia has the highest prevalence of child marriage in the world. But girls are fighting back against this harmful tradition.
Ruby, 18 and Ruchi, 17, India
Sisters Ruby and Ruchi were to be married off by their father to two brothers. Despite being 17, Ruchi knew her rights. She threatened to lodge a report with the local police as marrying under the age of 18 would be a crime.
Her family finally agreed to drop the marriage plans for both sisters and allow them to continue their studies.
“Only the girl is on the receiving end of all the problems that follow an under-age marriage. While others would just sympathise, I would be the one to bear the complications all my life. So I stood up in rebellion.” she says.
Now both girls feel more confident to speak up in their families and communities, and are empowered by knowing how to be able to stop a child marriage if needed.
Laxmi, 16, Nepal
Laxmi was 16 when her parents told her they had found a boy who would be good for her to marry. Shocked to hear this news, she immediately told her friends at Plan International’s childrens’ club.
“If I had been married so young it would have been like suicide. I might get pregnant and giving birth wouldn’t be easy. It’s risk for my physical health and wouldn’t be good for my mental health either. I will have to obey my in-laws and my fate would depend on them. I would feel like my life is dark and lonely.”
The club facilitators put Laxmi in touch with NGO Faren, our implementation partners in Nepal, who helped Laxmi persuade her parents to stop the child marriage just before it was due to take place.
“We have to empower girls. If more girls are aware of their rights, their situation will improve,” she says.
Shalini, 21, India
At 17, Shalini stopped her own marriage from taking place and has since prevented over a dozen child marriages (both boys and girls) from happening.
Working with Plan International as a youth volunteer and child activist since 2010, Shalini’s dedication has seen her receive a youth advocate accolade from the Government of Uttar Pradesh and a Plan India Impact Award for being a ‘Youth Champion’.
“I want to inspire the girls who believe that their goals can never be achieved. I tell girls that if you wish to fulfill your dreams, then first you should be able to express yourself and make people hear you.”
Roxana, 15, Bangladesh
Roxana is a student in Grade 7. She lives in Bhurungamari Upazila in the remote northern district of Kurigram in Bangladesh. A few months ago, her parents almost forced her to get married.
“While I was studying in my room one night, I overheard my parents talking about getting me married, but they didn’t tell me about it directly. So I had very little idea about what was going on.
“Our school teacher told us about child marriage being illegal during one of our classes. So the moment my parents told me that they had confirmed my wedding date I contacted him and told him everything. My teacher then contacted my father and consulted with him and made him realise the negative sides of child marriage.”
Roxana, whose identity is protected because of her age, is now pleased to be continuing her studies.
Child marriage is rooted in gender inequality
Many child marriages in South Asia result from factors including poverty, lack of access to education and social pressure. Cutting across all of these is entrenched gender inequality and damaging social norms that make girls less valued than boys in society.
But girls are starting to fight back against years of tradition. Plan International’s 18+ programme is empowering girls with the information, skills and services they need to be healthy, educated and safe – giving them the confidence to make their own decisions and get their voices heard.
*UNICEF, State of the World’s Children, 2017