Gladys’ Choice: Divorced teen mom goes back to school

Iganga, Uganda

Gladys waits for us in the doorway of her parental home. A young woman, although no one knows how old exactly, she is probably around her twenties. We shake hands with Gladys’ father and mother and start our conversation about child marriages. When Gladys married – and divorced shortly afterwards – she still was a child. We wonder how parents think about daughters, and about how Gladys looks back at her brief marriage.

According to the etiquette, we start the conversation with her father Patrick (76 years old, worked as a bike messenger) and her mother Irene (50 years old, house wife). They have twelve children together. “Why did Gladys get married at such an early age?” I ask. Patrick explains; “She got seduced by a boy from school. That sort of things happen if you send your daughter to school. Why do I have to work so hard to pay for her school fees, if she walks away with the first boy she meets? Daughters ran off if you don’t pay attention. She should have stayed away.”

Irene defends her daughter: “It’s not that simple. How can you expect your daughter to go to school with an empty stomach? We had nothing to offer. Of course she went looking for a boy who could help her. She moved in with that boy and hoped to get better food there. But his family treated her badly.” Patrick shrugs. Irene tells me about her trying to inform her daughter while doing the dishes, about boys, sex and getting pregnant, but it wasn’t that easy. “You’re so old fashioned mom, you have no idea how things are going right now!” Gladys used to say. Everyone laughs.

When her parents leave to show the photographer the house, Gladys leans forward and says gently: “It’s not how my father told you. I fell in love with a boy from school, that is true. When my father found out he became furious. He made sure the boy got arrested. My heart broke. I was angry and left.” But life with the family of her boyfriend was even worse. She quit school, moved in with her brother in the city and started working as a housekeeper with a rich family. She sent the money she made to her parents. One day, something snapped inside her. I am wasting my time, she thought. I can do better than this!

Reluctantly, she returned to her parents’ village. “Please let me move back in and go back to school.”, she begged. “You’re too old for school now, it’s better for you to marry,” her father said. The very next day, her father brought in an acquaintance; the man carried food and presents. He took Gladys to church where they got married. She had never seen him before.

“I really tried to live with that man, but it didn’t work. I didn’t even have soap to wash myself! After three months I walked back to my parents house and said: sorry, I can’t be his wife anymore.” Mother Irene convinced her husband to welcome their daughter back into their home. It was okay, under one condition; she had to provide for her own food. “And then I found out that I was pregnant.”

Gladys was reluctant to go back to highschool, pregnant or not, but she put her mind on the St. Matthiasschool, which was walking distance from home, and asked the principal for help. He was impressed. Never before in his career had he seen a pregnant girl asking him for help with finishing school. Gladys herself saved some money, but it wasn’t enough to pay for school, so the principal promised to help her.

“The birth was horrible,” smiles Gladys. “It took a whole day and a whole night.” When her son Samuel was six months old, she went back to school. A couple of months ago, some volunteers from The Hunger Project came to school to talk about child marriages for HER CHOICE. They sat together with just the girls. During the group session Gladys realized that her story was very special: getting married, divorced, delivering a baby and going back to school. The volunteers thought so too, and asked to have a conversation with her parents.

In the village were Gladys is living, arranged marriages for young daughters are still very common. The religious leader has spoken out against child marriage, which is a good starting point for creating child marriage free communities. “Parents should talk more often about these topics together,” says mother Irene. “We do not dare to talk to each other, because we are afraid of what they might think of us. It’s uncomfortable. Perhaps the volunteers of The Hunger Project can organize more meetings with parents about this subject. ”

Thanks to the attention from the volunteers, Gladys now is an inspiring example for other girls in the village. “It’s common that parents marry off their daughters at such a young age, but it shouldn’t be normal. That’s what I like to tell other girls. It is very difficult to deliver a baby and to go back to school afterwards. I have to walk a long distance and I don’t know what it will bring. But it is possible. That’s what I like to demonstrate.”

Photo credits: Rebke Klokke