Doreen grew up in rural Zambia, in one of the poorest districts in the north. When she was just seven years old, her mother passed away unexpectedly. Two years later, tragedy struck the family once more when Doreen’s father was killed. Suddenly orphans, Doreen and her four young siblings had to leave the place where they grew up, and move in with their grandmother in a village nearby.
With four young children to suddenly support, Doreen’s elderly grandmother barely had the strength to work and earn money to feed everyone. They struggled on in this way for a few years, until finally Doreen’s grandmother feared that they could not survive like this for much longer. With this realization, Doreen’s grandmother faced a terrible decision.
Fearful that she would not live long enough to see all four children through to adulthood, and distressed by the idea of leaving them fend for themselves, she felt that she had no choice but to arrange a marriage for Doreen, the eldest child. She hoped that Doreen’s husband would be able to pay for her to go to school, and that he would earn enough money to help take care of Doreen’s siblings, giving them a better chance at regular meals and an education.
When Doreen found out what her grandmother had planned, she wanted to refuse. “I had no desire to get married. All I wanted was to go to school. I was young and I was supposed to be at school.” But when she looked at her four young siblings, she knew that she didn’t want to see them suffer, continuing to live in this state of acute poverty. And so Doreen, still a child herself, and in the wake of losing both of her parents, entered into a marriage with a man more than twice her age.
I was too young. I never imagined that I would get married at my age. I didn’t want to get married because I loved going to school. It was because of poverty, that’s why I had to get married.
Doreen was thirteen when she got married. Her husband was thirty years old.
Whilst she worked in the house, Doreen’s husband would go looking for work, doing odd jobs as a day laborer. Without a regular income, they often went hungry, and Doreen soon found that she was unable to afford basic needs; food, clothes, even shelter. If her husband were to decide not to go searching for work on a particular day, then Doreen would be resigned to a sleepless night on an empty stomach.
Soon after getting married and long before her body was ready, Doreen became pregnant. Her classmates pointed and whispered, and soon Doreen stopped going to school. From then on, Doreen spent her days sweeping, washing clothes, washing dishes, collecting cassava, collecting firewood, working in neighboring fields and cooking for her husband in the evenings. Every morning as she was sweeping and doing chores, she would see her friends pass by in their uniforms on their way to school.
As her pregnancy grew, she was terrified. “I had no idea about childbirth. I was scared of having a baby because I could not manage to take care of a baby because I was very young. I’m still just a child.” When her labor pains started, Doreen didn’t know what was happening to her body. At thirteen years old, she went into a terrifying and painful labor, resulting in an emergency Caesarean section.
I was hurt when I discovered I was pregnant, I was too young. My friends were in school and I was pregnant. I wouldn’t like anyone to go through what I have gone through.
Waking up in the middle of every night to breastfeed, completing her household chores, and laboring in nearby fields, Doreen was exhausted. Even with all of her hard work, she and her husband still found themselves often unable to earn enough to adequately clothe their baby and feed themselves.
I used to think that my life would change for the better when I got married, but even the dream that I had that I would take care of my young brothers and sisters turned out to be a myth.
In spite of everything that she has gone through and continues to go through, Doreen hasn’t lost hope for her future. When CAMFED Association member Alice (herself once destined to be a child bride) heard about her Doreen’s fate, she rallied the resources to help. Now 14 years old, Doreen looks forward to returning to school with CAMFED’s support, to be educated just as her friends have been educated.
The network of pastoral care that CAMFED mobilizes around the most vulnerable girls – CAMFED Association members who provide mentorship and social support, Teacher Mentors, community members and Headteachers – means that Doreen will get exactly the guidance and help she needs to stay and succeed in school.
(Photo: Eliza Powell/CAMFED)
After she has completed her education, Doreen would love to become a teacher. She admired her teachers when she was at school, and hopes that through being a teacher, she can contribute to the development of Zambia. With her own salary, Doreen will be able to support her siblings and look after her grandmother. She is determined that her son will have a bright future, “I would love my child to be educated so that he can help to develop our country and in turn he can also help others to be like him.”
* Doreen’s name has been changed in order to protect her identity.