Ten-year-old Gertrude is from a town in the Chibombo District of Zambia. Three years ago, when she lost her mother, her grandmother assumed the responsibility of raising her. Sadly, the following year, Gertrude’s grandmother died too.

“She took care of me. She told me stories and she took me to church,” remembers Gertrude, who now lives with her aunt Faness.

“She is my daughter, because her mum is not here. So now I am her mum and her aunt,” Faness says.

On a typical day, Gertrude rises early in the morning, washes herself, sweeps the yard, makes the tea and then washes the dishes. After school, she helps her aunt tend to the farmland that her family uses to grow crops. Their yield is scarce, however, and there are periods when there is little to no food.

Sometimes I don’t eat much then I’m unhappy. It hurts.... 

For many Zambian families living in poverty, taking their children out of school so that they can either work or marry seems like a plausible opportunity to secure the family’s livelihood. Yet this is one of the biggest hurdles that girls such as Gertrude face in fulfilling their dreams and creating a better future for themselves. 

Zambia has one of the highest child marriage rates in the world – 42 per cent of women aged 20-24 years are married off by the age of 18 – a rate that has not evolved since 2002. While the rates of child marriage may vary from one region to another, they are as high as 60 per cent in the country’s Eastern Region. 

Faness wants Gertrude to stay in school and not get married early. “I don’t want her to be just at home because if she doesn’t go to school, she’ll be like me. Working all day in the garden, all the time working in the field which is not good,” says Faness, adding: “That’s the challenge, I want her to enter grade 8, grade 9, up to grade 12 and go to college.”

Gertrude hopes she will get an education so that she can live a good life. “I want to be a teacher,” she says.

In Zambia, Plan International works at the community level to strengthen child protection mechanisms, and also acts as the secretariat for a civil society group which is addressing the issue of ending child marriage in the country. With more than 20 members, the group is a powerful lobbying force.