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Enala was only 14 when she discovered she was pregnant.
She met the man while working on a neighboring farm in her rural town in Zambia to get some extra money for food. He was kind, handsome and had a way with words. It was hard not to think of it as love.
The neighbors whispered, and her parents were mortified, but to Enala the pregnancy was a blessing in disguise. She felt more than ready to move out of her family’s home and didn’t mind that her boyfriend was so much older than her. For as long as she could remember, her parents had worked tirelessly to take care of her and her eight siblings, but it was rarely enough to keep food on the table. She had grown up hungry and missing school often; the family had to keep moving to take jobs wherever they could find them, which didn’t make it easy to go to class consistently. Enala’s childhood had been one of extreme struggle and hardship, and she was eager to leave it behind.
When her baby’s father asked her to marry him, it felt like the natural thing to do – even though her parents cautioned her against it. Enala’s hopes were high that this would finally be her ticket to a better life.
Enala’s situation is not unusual by any means. In Zambia, nearly 30% of marriages involve a child who is younger than 18. Especially if a young girl becomes pregnant, she is expected, in some communities, to drop out of school and marry her abuser.
Enala had no idea that her struggles were only beginning.
At first, everything felt like Enala dreamed it would. Her new husband was a good provider. She never had to worry about what she would eat, what she would wear or where she would sleep – an enormous relief after the unpredictability that defined her childhood.
Unfortunately, the happiness was short-lived. As the weeks and months passed and her belly swelled and the baby began to kick, making its presence known, Enala’s husband’s attitude toward her slowly started to change.
“He started mistreating me and sometimes would leave me home without food,” Enala remembers. “I stayed on, hoping things would change after the baby was born. However, even after giving birth, he still seemed to hate me.
“I was too ashamed to go back to my parents,” Enala says.
Although Enala’s labor and delivery was a long, difficult ordeal, she eventually gave birth to a baby girl. She realized rather quickly, to her horror, what little support she would have. The baby became solely her responsibility as her husband drew further and further away. When the baby turned a year old, he left home and never came back.
“I heard from people within the village that he was living with another woman,” Enala says. “At this point, I had no choice but to return to my father’s house so that I could get help with raising the child.
“Going back to my father’s house was a big relief, but I was ashamed of what I had become.”
Shame is a powerful emotion, especially for children and youth. It can drive self-destructive behavior like almost nothing else. Enala began drinking to cope with her feelings of inadequacy. Eventually, she started abusing drugs as well.
“I could not even take care of the baby properly,” Enala remembers. “I thought beer and drugs helped me forget about the marriage and problems I had put myself through.”
Years passed by in this way – years of living to escape the pain Enala felt.
It was a day like any other when one of Enala’s friends came to visit and invited her to an upcoming event in their community. It was some kind of training for young adults on sexual health put on by some organization called ChildFund.
Enala wasn’t even remotely interested. What new information could she possibly learn, after everything she’d been through? These kinds of talks were for teens and young adults who were still in school, doing what they were supposed to – who still had their whole lives ahead of them.
But there wasn’t any money left for alcohol or drugs that week. Maybe going with her friend would help her pass the time. She went – and, much to everyone’s surprise, she kept going back.
“I was surprised that the training focused on issues I had faced and was very practical,” Enala says. “I learned about the importance of knowing and valuing myself as a person and a young woman.
“The topics on drug and alcohol abuse made me realize that I was putting my life in danger. I realized that I needed to put my life in order because there was still hope for me.”
Enala continued to attend the ChildFund workshops in her community and today, she has been clean from drugs and alcohol for one year. Her daughter, now 10 years old, is enrolled in a local school built by ChildFund and is thriving under Enala’s renewed commitment to give her the best care possible.
At 24, Enala again feels – for the first time since she was so young – that she has her whole life ahead of her. She just applied to get into a skills training school in Chongwe District to study tailoring. “I have always loved fashion and designing, so I’m happy that this is what I will focus on for some time,” she says.
Whatever happened to Enala’s husband, who abused and married a child? The law in Zambia states that a person below 21 years of age needs parental consent to marry. However, even people under 16 can still be married with judicial consent. This is why child marriage continues to prevail especially in the rural areas of Zambia.
Even so, Zambia is on the road to progress on this issue. Child marriage rates declined from 42% in 2002 to 31% in 2014, and they are still falling. That’s thanks in part to the work of organizations like ChildFund to raise community awareness of the harms of child marriage. Change begins by transforming social attitudes and culminates in changed laws.
A ChildFund peer educator talks to a group of youth about child marriage in Zambia.
When we asked Enala what her advice would be for other young girls, she had a lot to say.
“Your home is the safest place you can be, even if you go hungry sometimes,” Enala says. “Our parents have our best interests at heart. Let us listen to them and concentrate on school.
“The young men will leave you when a younger and more beautiful girl comes along, but no one will ever take your education away.”
You can help stop child marriage in Zambia and around the world. Sponsor a child, especially a girl, to encourage and support her as she grows – or donate to our 31 Days of Holiday Hope campaign to fuel our work to fight child marriage in 2024.