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Breaking the Cycle

Alum Aria Mustary's Mai Soli Foundation aims to empower young girls through mentorship, unlock their potential, and shift societal perceptions that lead to child marriage

When Aria Mustary, Ed.M.’24, was 12 years old, her father tried to marry her off. Her family lived in New York, but it would be easy to send her away to her home country of Bangladesh where the practice was still common.

Years before, in Bangladesh, Mustary’s mother Syeda was 16 years old when she was forced into marrying a man twice her age. Despite the pair immigrating to the United States soon after and building a family, this was not the life her mother wanted for Mustary and her sister.

“Right when [my father] tried to marry me off, my mother stood up for me and she broke the cycle for me,” says Mustary, founder of the Mai Soli Foundation, a nonprofit that aims to empower girls to end the practice of child marriage.

While child marriage affects both sexes, it disproportionately affects women, touching the lives of 12 million girls worldwide every year, according to UNICEF. Girls’ safety and health are of utmost concern because of early childbirth and the potential violence associated with these relationships.  

In addition to putting their health in jeopardy, child marriage also robs girls of the opportunity to continue their education and pursue a career, according to Unchained At Last, a survivor-led nonprofit that provides legal and social services to help people escape forced union. Their potential is overlooked, and their future, one where they become a young wife, and eventually a young mother, is decided for them.  

“It's one of those extremely complex issues that leads to all of those other problems, like adolescent pregnancy, rape, domestic violence. And so many more awful things,” says Mustary.

Two years into pursuing her undergraduate degree at Babson College, Mustary found herself struggling with her mental health as she battled imposter syndrome and feeling “not good enough.” She called her mother crying, telling her she couldn’t continue her studies like this.

In response, her mother told her how proud she was of her for pursuing her education, something that her cousins in Bangladesh may not be able to do as they could become child brides — a future she was able to escape.

Mustary, troubled at the thought of young girls like her cousins being taken advantage of and forced into marriage against their will, decided to take action. In March 2019, Mustary traveled to Chittagong and Dhaka in Bangladesh and spoke with families, religious leaders, and teachers. She set out to figure out why this age-old tradition was still happening, despite becoming illegal in the country in 1929 under the Child Marriage Restraint Act.

Mustary found in her conversations that many parents simply don’t see a better opportunity available to them. In countries with poverty and conflict, parents — and sometimes girls themselves — believe that once married, girls will have some sort of safety, protected from rape or other forms of exploitation, or even hunger, she says.

“They feel like the best they can do to secure their daughter’s future is through marrying her off to a rich man,” Mustary says.

This trip inspired Mustary to launch the nonprofit Mai Soli Foundation, which pairs girls from partner schools in Bangladesh with local university students and young businesswomen who serve as a “big sisters” and show them that a life beyond marriage is possible for them.

Mai Soli’s proprietary curriculum gives young girls personalized instruction in financial literacy, entrepreneurship, and leadership. Through the program, they develop the skills and confidence necessary, Mustary says, to become empowered to shift the dynamics in their families and ultimately break a generational cycle.

Mai Soli is one of 400 ventures incubating in Harvard’s student i-Lab this year and was a 2024 President’s Innovation Challenge finalist, a competition that celebrates innovators at Harvard who turn ideas into impact.

In 2023, Mai Soli had seven partner schools in Bangladesh with 183 graduates of the program and they will welcome a new cohort of students in spring 2024.

“We didn't think of this problem. This problem existed. We thought of the solution,” says Mustary. “And we've created such an innovative program and innovative solution to actually help these girls.”


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