“Will you marry me?”
It’s one of the biggest questions anyone can ask or answer. Who you marry — or if you choose to marry at all — is arguably one of the most important decisions we make in our lives.
But millions of young women across the world never get to answer that question. They don’t get to decide if the answer is yes or no, because the decision is made for them.
In Sudan, where Zainab lives, more than a third of girls are married before they reach the age of 18. Parents are responsible for arranging the marriage, typically without consulting their daughter.
If it had been up to her, Zainab wouldn’t have chosen to marry when she was only 17. And she certainly wouldn’t have dropped out of school at that same age. It's not unusual for girls to be forced to abandon their education after they marry, but Zainab was reassured that would not happen to her.
“My husband promised me that I would be able to finish my education, but when I was getting ready to go back to university, he stopped me from leaving and said: ‘consider yourself a divorced woman if you go back,’” Zainab recalls.
Less than a year later, Zainab gave birth to a baby girl. Once again, what should have been a life-altering decision was snatched away from her. She hadn’t chosen to be a mother, while she was still basically a child herself. But when she looked into the eyes of her daughter Mashallah, everything shifted.
She knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that her daughter should be free to choose her own path through life — her future was hers to decide, and no one should be able to take that away from her. But how could she teach her daughter that, without leading by example?
So, when Mashallah was 11 months old, Zainab bravely risked it all to rewrite the future for herself and her daughter. She ended her marriage, even though she knew that she’d face the stigma of being a divorced woman, and that she’d have to raise her daughter alone.
“I said to myself, if I get educated and get my certificate, then I can change my daughter’s life, and I can educate her too. And if she faces any problems in her life, she can say that her mother overcame this problem, so I can too. I want to be a role model for her.”
Zainab credits the Plan International Sudan workshops she attended with helping her gain a better understanding of gender equality and girls’ rights. “I think I’m stronger because of them. Plan International was very supportive of me.”
Currently, Zainab works at her community’s literacy center, where she encourages girls who are no longer in school to not give up on their education. “They are told that education is not important, and I’m trying to help them to continue their studies,” Zainab says.
She is also raising awareness about the dangers of child marriage, so that more girls won’t have to overcome the same barriers to get to where she is today. “I think that child marriage is a complete violation against girls and it undermines women’s rights.”
Zainab is looking forward to returning to university and is optimistic about what comes next, for both her and Mashallah. “I want my daughter to live a happy life without any problems. That she has a good education and marries the love of her life after she becomes a woman — that is what I hope for my daughter in the future.”
Too many girls never get the chance to choose their own path in life. But you can help girls rewrite their futures today.