How Staying in School Can Prevent Child Marriage: Monica’s Story

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“I think the biggest problem facing girls in South Sudan is forced marriage. To overcome this, girls must be allowed to continue their studies.” – Monica, 18

According to the United Nations, 52% of girls are married before the age of 18 in South Sudan. The practice has been accepted as ‘normal’ and remains prevalent due to conflict, poverty and severe food insecurity.

When Monica was 15, one of her neighbours wanted to marry her. He already had two wives but came to speak to her father and uncle about the proposal. But her father refused to let him take Monica.

The uncle disagreed with the father’s decision.

“He reminded my father that he was not the one who had paid cows as a dowry for my mother – it was him and the family. He said that they needed the cows back and told my father he had to marry me to get the cows back, so my father had to accept.”

It is common for cows to be used as dowry payments and for girls to be bartered over to repay family debts.

An ally in the fight to end #ChildMarriage

 When Monica’s father went to see the head teacher at her school and told her that Monica needed to leave so she could get married, the teacher refused and said that the only way she’d be allowed is if the Minister of Education sent a letter of permission.

“So my father talked to the rest of the family, and they agreed not to marry me off. My uncle was not happy and continued to threaten that he would come and take me by force and marry me off anyway. I am scared that if he came again now, they would take me away from school.”

130 million girls are currently out of school globally and child marriage continues to be one of the reasons why. Girls should be able to exercise their right to an education without looming fears of being married off.

“I feel safest in the school because nobody can get me here. We grow ground nuts and maize here and learn many new things. We have learnt how to debate and be model pupils. I have another year and a half of my studies left. I want to continue with my studies so I hope that my father will not give up and carry on supporting my education.”

Monica’s teacher was her greatest ally and helped her avoid child marriage, but the nearly 12 million girls who are married before the age of 18 each year may not have that kind of support. The longer girls stay in school the more likely they are to decide their own futures.

Education is key to helping end #ChildMarriage

Plan International deploys numerous strategies in order to get children — especially girls — into the classroom and to keep them there.

In South Sudan, we are giving children food rations to share with their families as an incentive to keep girls in school instead of selling them into marriage. And older girls are being given opportunities to earn incomes and support their families through economic empowerment strategies.

“When I finish school, I want to be a lawyer because there are many problems in South Sudan. I want to be a judge so that I can fight for the rights of girls.”

We’ve come to accept that it’s normal for too many girls to be denied a future. But we must Defy Normal and work towards advancing equality for girls so that children like Monica are able to pursue their education and reach their full potential.

Photo credit: Kate Holt.