The Gambia: from grass to grace, a young feminist shapes the global agenda

Isatou Jeng speaks during the "Young and capable" session at the Girls Not Brides Global Member Meeting, held in Morocco in May 2015. | Photo credit: Hassan Ouazzani, Girls Not Brides

There is no life without a story and no success without a challenge. We all have a story, but our past does not have to define us. The past can empower us to work harder and shape a brighter future for ourselves and the lives of others. My story is not an easy one to tell, but through determination I was able to transform challenges into opportunities to get to where I am today.

I became pregnant when I was just fifteen years old and in 10th grade at school, but this did not stop me from going back into education after having my baby. It is assumed that the only way a girl can hide the shame caused to her family is to marry soon after giving birth. I stood my ground, refused to marry, and saw education as the best chance for a better life for me and my child.

I took control of my own fate by challenging the assumption that the future does not hold anything bright for girls like me. Pursuing my studies opened up many opportunities, one of which led me to where I am today – a founding member of an organisation called The Girls’ Agenda, a youth-led movement established in 2011 by the young, for the young.

The pioneers of the organisation are young women, most of whom are from ethnic groups and communities where child marriage and other harmful traditions are practiced. We work closely with young people on a day-to-day basis, and serve as mentors and role models to our peers.

We also work with Gambian communities on sensitive issues such as gender equality, women and children’s rights, female genital mutilation and child marriage. The Girls’ Agenda promotes the reproductive health rights of girls and women by demanding investment in health and education for girls, and the elimination of sexual violence and child marriage.

“It is assumed that the only way a girl can hide the shame caused to her family is to marry soon after giving birth. I stood my ground, refused to marry, and saw education as the best chance for a better life for me and my child.”

Child marriage continues to be a serious violation of the right of the girl-child across Africa and the prevalence rate remains high in the Gambia where I am from –36% of girls marry before age 18. Children who are married are more likely to face social and economic challenges in their adult lives. When a girl drops out of school and ends up trapped in a marriage she did not choose, with a baby her body was not ready to produce, her fundamental right to a healthy reproductive and sexual life is nonexistent.

Child marriage robs girls of their childhood, with no escape from poverty and left in a “marriage” in which they have no voice. Equal decision-making with regards to birth spacing, contraception and the right to work are ideals, not yet a reality.

Although child marriage affects the whole of society, it is evident that girls bear the brunt. Involving girls in the struggle to end child marriage is fundamental. She who knows, feels it the most.

Every year, International Youth Day recognises the role and contribution of young people in international development, whilst calling on other stakeholders to meaningfully engage us in their efforts. The day recognises that young people have the knowledge, passion and energy to bring about positive change – there are already clear manifestations of our contribution towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. In particular, young people are part and parcel of the struggle to end child marriage. Ignoring youth is ignoring the solution.

“This is what I envisage for every girl-child. To break the vicious cycle of poverty, girls must have access to all of the necessary resources to be educated, thrive and become active players in local, national and global development.”

As a role model to thousands of young people, I will continue to push those who have the power to make a difference to provide young girls with quality education. With education comes delayed marriage and empowerment. Suddenly the doors to opportunities are opened for young girls, who can then grow into young women and reach their fullest potential.

This is what I envisage for every girl-child. To break the vicious cycle of poverty, girls must have access to all of the necessary resources to be educated, thrive and become active players in local, national and global development.

I promote girls’ education not only because it saved me from child marriage, but it also equipped me with the confidence, knowledge and skills to allow me to have an impact on the lives of people both within and outside the Gambia.

This is my story. I am a young woman who has helped make change happen. Other girls can be too if they are given the chance.