POSTED May 8, 2023
How staying in school stops child marriage and child labour
Doris, 15, from Ghana, vividly recalls the day she buried her mother—and any hope for an education alongside her.
By Karen Homer, Children Believe Canada
The “Girls-7” Series: Doris in Ghana
Seven girls overcoming discrimination, deprivation and even danger, in seven different places. They share a common courage: to dream fearlessly in the face of adversity. They are examples of the importance of education, which offers a lifeline to safety today and the hope for a better future tomorrow, for both them and their community. This month in response to the G7 summit, Children Believe is calling on global leaders to create greater educational access for girls as a key solution to many major global challenges, not a problem to be fixed.
“I lost my mother. I was six years old,” says Doris, a soft-spoken, shy teenager. “After she died, it was difficult for me to go to school. There was no money for me in our family.”
Doris’ father — a smallholder subsistence farmer — dispatched his six-year-old daughter to work in the vegetable fields near their home while her two older brothers went off to school.
From dawn to dusk in the searing 30-degree heat, Doris planted yams, a major food staple in Ghana. Working barefoot with a sharp, heavy hoe, she churned up hectares of parched soil. Harvest time was gruelling. Doris dug up thousands of yams and piled the heavy tubers onto carts headed for the market.
Yam cultivation is backbreaking work for adults, but it can be life-threatening for someone as young as Doris. Child labourers in Ghana suffer from various health problems, such as cuts, burns, broken bones, skin diseases and snake bites among others.
Doris laboured alongside her father in the fields for the next four years.
But all Doris really wanted was to learn to read and write.
“I felt really sad if I saw my brothers going off to school in the morning,” says Doris, her brown eyes filling with tears at the memory. “I wanted to be part of that. I would think to myself, ‘If my mother was still alive, I would also be going to school.’”
Being shut out of education is not uncommon for girls in Ghana’s resource-poor northeast region. Almost 30 percent of girls age six to 14 are not currently attending school (some of whom have never attended.) The region’s prevalence of child marriage is the highest in the country. A reported 13 percent of girls here (more than thrice the national average of four percent) are married by age 17, although 18 is the legal marriage age. Family poverty is a major reason why girls are kept out of school to work or are married off.
Doris despaired about her future being devoid of education. She knew that her father considered her a financial burden and would soon marry her off to an older neighbour or relative.
Fortunately, Doris’ aunt Rafia had her move in with her after hearing about her niece’s plight. Doris was soon enrolled at a primary school supported by Children Believe. She had never been inside a classroom or sat at a desk. She couldn’t read, write or sign her name. And she didn’t speak English — the language of instruction in Ghana starting in Grade 3. But Doris remained undaunted.
“That very first day in school, I was feeling happy,” recalls Doris, who says she didn’t mind being placed in kindergarten with five-year-old children half her age. “I was just so happy.”
Gradually, Doris, now 15, caught up with her classmates. Today, she is proud of her hard-won progress and after five years she has the top marks in her class.
Doris is currently in her second last year at another school supported by Children Believe. Thanks to Canadian support, 120 students can study in three bright, well-equipped classrooms where she can now see her career path clearly: She plans to be the first in her extended family to attend college after she graduates next year.
“I want to be a nurse,” says Doris confidently. “When my mother was very sick, we went to the hospital but no one could help her. I don’t want anyone to go through that same pain. That is the reason why I want to be a nurse. I want to help my community, too.”
“A lot of my friends are married and even have children,” says Doris. “Because we don’t have [money], a man can say, ‘Just accept and marry [me] and I [will] do everything for you’. He [will] beat you and you always accept [it] because you don’t have [money], and you will become pregnant, too, and then you can’t go to school.”
Memories of her labour in the yam fields still painfully fresh, Doris encourages her friends to stay in school. “Education is very important,” she counsels, with wisdom beyond her young years. “If you marry now, you will suffer. If you finish school and you are working, you will be proud of yourself, and later you can send your own children to school.”
Doris has no plans to marry “at least until I’m 25 years old, when I have a job and can look after myself,” she shares.
The critical need for education
The latest research shows that girls who stay in school are three times less likely to be married before they become adults. Children, especially girls like Doris, have the strength and resiliency to overcome challenges in order to dream fearlessly and build a new future. Children Believe is part of a global movement asking for Canadian and global support at the G7 summit to help 40 million more girls gain access to an education.
Learn how you can help empower more children like Doris to not just survive, but thrive.