When families in the world’s poorest places run out of options, children are especially vulnerable. Exploitation, trafficking and child marriage are among the dangers they face.
That was true for Patricia (pictured above), a teen from Zambia who dreamed of a happier life. “My parents had no reliable source of income, and most of the time we would go to bed without eating anything,” she says.
So when the older man whom she was dating said he would marry her and they would have a good life together, she thought her dreams might finally have a chance of coming true.
Her boyfriend promised her gifts. He promised her money so she could buy the foods she longed to eat, such as fritters and sweets. Hungry and with almost nothing to call her own, Patricia was desperate to believe him.
That was how, at the age of 15, Patricia became a child bride.
She was taken from the safety of home, isolated from her friends, and cut off from school.
“He said I would be very happy as his wife,” Patricia says.
“Living with my husband at his grandmother’s place was my worst nightmare.
“He stopped giving me money for food and told me to help his grandmother till the land, draw water and grow maize for us to eat … I missed playing ball games with my friends.
“I was never allowed to go anywhere, including school, as I was now a married woman.”
While child marriage is against the law in Zambia, parents and children are often unaware they are protected, or they feel they don’t have other options.
The country has one of the highest rates of child marriage in the world, with 31% of women aged 20 to 24 years married off by the age of 18, according to UNICEF.
Key contributing factors include poverty and girls’ lack of access to education. The United Nations Population Fund found that girls living in rural areas of the developing world are twice as likely to be married before the age of 18 as their urban counterparts, and girls with no education are over three times more likely to do so than those with secondary or higher education.
ChildFund Zambia is helping protect vulnerable girls by educating families and communities about the dangers of child marriage and financially supporting children to continue their education.
* Warning this story contains distressing content. The names of the people involved have been changed to protect their identities.
Regina was 14 years old when she was sexually abused by a man in his 50s. He lured her with an equivalent of $215 to a hotel room in Port Moresby.
She left the room, distraught and alone, and feeling helpless. She needed the money to make ends meet and desperately wanted to finish school. When both her parents passed away, her older sister had neglected her.
The abuse continued on the weekends for three years. Each time, Regina was given money and made to promise she would not tell anyone.
Her school grades dropped, and she lost her appetite and her confidence. Eventually, she lost hope.
When Regina has flashbacks, she thinks of taking her own life. She had felt like there was no reason for living anymore.
It was only when staff from ChildFund’s 1-Tok Kaunselin Helpim Lain and Rights Respect and Resilience project visited her school that things changed.
The staff encouraged students to call the helpline if they encountered any violence, negligence or any form of abuse in their life.
For the first time in a long time, Regina felt a glimmer of hope. After the visit she called the hotline.
A counsellor named Joe answered, and Regina found herself in tears. It had been three years and it was only now that she finally felt safe to tell someone about all the pain she was carrying.
Joe affirmed her confidentiality and provided crisis counselling.
“I realised I had to help Regina externalise the problem and value her life and education,” Joe said.
“We discussed the importance of her health and I told her about her legal rights and provided information on referral pathways that were available to her.”
Counsellors at ChildFund’s 1-Tok Kaunselin Helpim Lain have been helping thousands of survivors of abuse, violence and neglect, like Regina, for three years. The 1-Tok Kaunselin Helpim Lain is Papua New Guinea’s first free national counselling helpline.
After Regina’s initial call, Joe checked on Regina every week and provided more counselling. He encouraged her to report the matter to police and to change her sim card so the perpetrator could no longer reach her.
Today, Regina is focused on finishing her studies and hopeful about her future.
The counselling helped her escape the abuse and recover emotionally, and is grateful for the hotline’s service and Joe’s commitment to helping turn her life around.
If you are in Papua New Guinea and need to talk to someone, call:
- 1-Tok Kaunselin Helpim Lain (toll-free) 7150 8000
If you are in Australia: