Worldwide, more than 700 million women alive today were married before their 18th birthday – of that number, more than 1 in 3 were married before age 15.
Child marriage is a human rights violation. Not only does it rob children of their childhood, but it also cuts short a girl’s education and increases her risk of physical and sexual abuse, as well as health problems.
Through Plan International’s work to Defy Normal around the world, we often encounter strong and defiant women who are tirelessly working to create a future where all girls can decide who, when and if they marry.
Meet 3 of these inspiring women and see how they’re working to end to child marriage in their community.
Chief Theresa – The Marriage Terminator
In 2017, Malawi made a historic amendment to its constitution to fully outlaw child marriage, following years of campaigning by youth activists supported by Plan International.
A crucial part of this massive victory centered on engaging village chiefs to lead dialogues within their communities about the risks and dangers of child marriage. Chiefs often carry great political sway and are deeply respected by community members. One chief, Theresa, says she was compelled to act after engaging with Plan International and learning how child marriage was forcing children to drop out of school in her region.
“I didn’t know what was going on in my villages. I was shocked,” says Theresa, “I thought ‘I must do something’.”
Today, Theresa has prevented over 2,500 marriages in her community, and is now known as “The Marriage Terminator” – a title she proudly accepts.
“Let these girls and boys go to school,” says Theresa, with conviction. “When you educate a girl, you educate a whole nation.”
Maria – The Girls’ Rights Advocate
“My daughter ended up in a child marriage against my wishes. Now my husband and I volunteer to make sure it doesn’t happen to others.” – these are the words of Maria, a mother of 4 who lives in a remote, mountainous region of Ecuador.
In Maria’s community, where two-thirds of the population lives in poverty, desperate parents have often inadvertently played a role in upholding harmful norms which see some girls married off and pregnant from as young as 12. Maria was determined not to let this happen to her 13-year-old daughter, but ultimately wasn’t able to deter her daughter from marrying a man nearly a decade her senior.
“I found it very sad,” she says. “I cried – I told her not to do it. But she wouldn’t listen.”
While their daughter chose to get married, Maria and Jose, her husband, are determined to ensure she remains in school and does not get pregnant anytime soon.
In addition, they’re working with 325 adolescents to spread awareness about the risks of early marriage and early pregnancy through workshops and discussions on sexual health – a major taboo in the community.
“I open up the community building for the kids so they can attend the workshops,” says Maria. “There are girls who have babies at 12, 13, 14-years-old. It’s not good. I encourage them to wait until they’re more mature. Children don’t make knowledgeable parents.”
Maria herself waited until age 24 to become a mother, and is happy to report that her message is being heard loud and clear by local youth.
“Now there’s less teen pregnancies – I haven’t been aware of any since we’ve been working with Plan International,” she says proudly. “I plan to keep on spreading awareness.”
Chief Juliana – The Role Model
Being a chief is tough, but being a chief and a woman in a village where men have typically held the highest positions of power can be even tougher. But traditional norms didn’t stop Juliana, 32, from becoming chief of her village in Timor-Leste.
“Some women have told me that they feel proud. With a woman as village chief, they feel that they can freely express their opinion for the first time,” says Juliana.
“I always advocate for women and girls in meetings and I speak about children’s rights – how they can make their own decisions and take action for their future.”
The message that young people can choose their own path is one that is resonating with many girls across the community, who are now empowered to speak out against early marriage and teen pregnancy.
“Girls feel much more confident to talk about our problems or worries,” says Cimran, 22, who, through Plan International’s programming, helps raise awareness and spread information about child marriage and early pregnancy. In Timor Leste, nearly 1 in 5 girls are married before age 18.
She adds that more women and girls feel inspired to aim higher, just like Juliana did.
“Some say ‘yes, next time, let’s also be a candidate for village chief’.”
Around the world, ‘normal’ for too many girls is facing roadblocks that challenge their power, freedom and equality just as they enter womanhood. Child marriage, in particular, often forces girls to drop out of school and become mothers before their young minds and bodies are ready. But inspiring women like Teresa, Juliana and Maria are working to protect girls and create a future where all can exercise their rights.
Plan International Canada is calling on Canadians like you to join women like Teresa, Juliana and Maria to #DefyNormal, by listening to girls and helping to amplify their voices. Together, we can support girls in becoming empowered, confident women ready to unleash their full potential.