By Meg Carter, ChildFund Sponsorship Communication Specialist
Today we celebrate the second International Day of the Girl Child, declared by the United Nations General Assembly to recognize girls’ rights. In 2012, the day focused on ending child marriage, and this year’s theme is related: Innovating for Girls’ Education.
Years ago, when I began working in the developing world, I thought I knew the reasons behind girls’ early marriage and lack of education. But the longer I lived there, the more I discovered complexity and nuance. We still struggle to end child marriage and educate girls.
Imagine for a moment you’re a teenaged girl living in a developing country.
Your name means beautiful.
At the beginning of each school year, your brothers move to the district capital to board with distant relatives. While they learn math, chemistry and physics, you pound rice in a mortar and pestle, cook meals over a three-stone fire, and tend the family’s garden, goats and chickens. Each week on market day you harvest avocados and mangoes to sell in the open-air market, bartering for whatever you can’t grow — rice, flour and oil.
You carry water home from the river in a basin on top of your head, moving slowly to avoid spilling the precious liquid. In sunny weather, you wash laundry by hand, laying clothes out on bushes to dry.
Each day, you gather branches from the forest, carrying them tied in a bundle on your head. At home you chop the wood into equal lengths to feed between the stones of your cooking fire.
In the evenings you prepare snacks to peddle in the streets: grilled peanuts, popcorn and ginger juice. Hearing the generator at the local bar shut off, you stack bowls of your mother’s specialties on your head and hurry to meet the village men as they celebrate the latest soccer match. You offer fried plantains, sweet potatoes and cassava, crisp with fragrant peanut oil.
This month, you turned 15. Soon, you expect to marry a man at least twice your age. Within another year, you’ll carry your first baby on your back. You hope your husband will allow you to return to school or learn a trade.
Long ago, your older brothers passed their high-school leaving exams. The eldest studies engineering at university. The second graduated from teacher-training college, and the third works at a nearby government office — one of the few salaried occupations in your country.
Your parents rejoice in their sons’ academic success; it brings your family a measure of economic security — an excellent return on investment. Your family will prosper.
You and your older sister completed primary school with certificates of merit, exceeding your community’s expectations. Your family speaks of you with pride. Your domestic skills attracted the attention of respectable families in the village, and your father now has several alliances to consider. Whomever he chooses as your husband will pay a substantial dowry.
Had you stayed in school, your marriage options would be fewer. An educated girl sparks no interest among village men. After a certain age, a girl cannot marry and enjoy the security of a husband. Your mother argued for you to leave school — like your sister before you — to prepare for marriage. Your father sadly agreed.
You are his favorite, the child he carried, running for miles to a hospital, as you convulsed with malaria. An old man now, he fears he can no longer protect you.
You will be beautiful on your wedding day.
Reporting by Janella Nelson, ChildFund Education Specialist
Ramatoulie is a 15-year-old girl from The Gambia who was able to use her voice to stand up against early marriage — including the prospect of her own — and blossom into a confident teenager with support from ChildFund. Here is her story in her own words.
Until I was 12 years old, I stayed home all day and took care of my eldest sister’s baby. I wasn’t comfortable, since all the kids around me were going to school. I wanted to go to school because I could not speak English, so my mother put me in school. She advised me to do well in school. Sometimes she would cry in telling me this.
My father and mother are rice and groundnut (peanut) farmers. Neither one of them went to school. My mother got married around 18 years old and had six children — five girls and one boy, but one girl passed away. I am the youngest. The first two girls got married at 16 years old, and my brother was sent to live with a relative in Senegal to become a baker. My other sister was in school but dropped out when she got pregnant in grade nine because the school wouldn’t accept her anymore.I was focused on education because I kept hearing that education was the key to success. Our school was lucky because ChildFund brought the Aflatoun program, which is a club where I learned about my rights. I liked the club, and I worked really hard and eventually was chosen as vice president by the teachers and students. In grade six, I was voted to become president, and there were 120 students in the group.
One day, when I was 14, my father told me there was a man who wanted to marry me. He was much older, about 30 or more years older and already had a wife and a child. He was from another country and wasn’t educated. I did not want this. My father said the man would take care of me and pay for my school, and if I said no, I would no longer be his daughter, and he would take everything away. He gave me three days to change my mind. The man tried to give me money to convince me, but I gave the money directly to my father and said I don’t want it. I refused to take anything from the man. My mother couldn’t do anything to help me.
I continued going to school, and I was very sad. My teacher saw something was wrong with me, and eventually three teachers came to my house to see what had happened. They spoke to my father and learned that he was going to make me marry. They tried to convince him not to marry me off because I was doing so well in school. My father said he didn’t have any money to pay for school. The teachers and the local community organization said they would support me. My father said that from now onward the teachers and God will be responsible for me.
With the support of my teachers, I stayed home and finished sixth grade. ChildFund sponsored me to go into upper primary school by paying my school fees, and I went to live with another family. I am in a good school, and I will be in eighth grade this coming year. My father is happy because he couldn’t pay school fees for me. He is a poor man, not a bad man, and he thought marrying me off was the only way that I could be taken care of.
In my new school, I joined another club called Speak Out! that empowers girls and boys with skills to deal with problems that are hindering their access to academic development. My advice for other girls is that education is the key to success in life, and they should focus on education. Girls should be aware that many problems are caused by boys and sometimes even teachers, like sexual harassment. Girls should speak out to people and tell a teacher they can really trust.
I was chosen to represent The Gambia at the Day of the African Child conference in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, earlier this summer. The sky is the limit!
At the conference, Ramatoulie read a poem she wrote:
A dark world, an odd emotion
Crossing my dreams, taking my emotions, my laughter and joy.
My smile seems so meaningless
The dark corners where I hid
Began to feel like home
As my childhood days are numbered
I drown in an ocean of my tears
With no one to help or pull me out
Tying the knot with a stranger
No friends, no allies
No love, no sympathy
Just a hall of darkness
Where my future dies
My doom is certain
My end is near
I dream of death, as I dream of heaven
Hopeless and helpless I saw myself
I think there was no one to help
But then I was wrong. In my surprise, as I drown deeper in the oceans of my tears. An organization came to rescue me called ChildFund.
They give me a new life.
They brought back my laughter and joy
They make my smile so meaningful
The dark world I was living before became a brighter one
They made me what I am today. ChildFund is everything to me.
They pay my school fees and even offer me a place…
A very responsible and kind person took me to her place, sheltered me and treated me like her own child. The beginning of my end I saw was the end of my misery. And the beginning of my bright future.
By Virginia Sowers, ChildFund Content Manager
Across the United States, organizations and citizens are coming together over the next 50 days to ask foreign policy leaders in Washington, D.C., to take concrete actions that will improve the lives of girls and women worldwide.
ChildFund is joining with a coalition, which includes the International Women’s Health Coalition, Half the Sky, Girls Not Brides and many others, to champion the rights of women and girls – a key focus area of former Secretary of State Hilary Clinton during the past four years.
The 50 days coalition is voicing its support for continued leadership by newly appointed Secretary of State John Kerry and other U.S. agencies to advance progress in U.S. foreign policy efforts on the following issues:
In ChildFund’s program areas across Africa, Asia and the Americas, we are making progress on many of these issues and improving the lives of women and children. In Kenya and Guinea, for example, we are working to make parents aware of the importance of education for girls, and we are succeeding in placing more young women in the classroom. In Mozambique, we are helping mothers obtain birth certificates for children who lack them – a key document for attending school, gaining employment and participating in elections. We are also launching efforts in Senegal, Dominica, Liberia and Indonesia to combat gender violence by assessing its prevalence and trends, researching root causes and supporting community mechanisms to both prevent violence and protect victims from further harm.
During the next 10 weeks, ChildFund will be participating in social media campaigns around each of the eight focal areas. During this time, Twitter and Facebook users are encouraged to post and share messages to help raise awareness (official hashtags are #usa4women and #usa4girls) and advocate for specific policy actions by the U.S. government that will help women and girls to be healthy, empowered, educated, and safe—no matter where they live.