FREETOWN, Sierra Leone/Johannesburg, South Africa - "According to our tradition, a girl should get married when she reaches puberty," said Zainab Binta Jalloh, a 23-year-old from Sierra Leone's Koinadugu District. She would know - she was married when she was 15 years old.
Two years early, when she was only 13, a 45-year-old man approached her parents with a marriage proposal.
"He was rich, and he was using his wealth to influence my parents. My parents were pressuring me about him every day," she told UNFPA.
But she was opposed to marrying so young. "I always resisted them," she recalled.
National Girls' Camp
Child marriage is a human rights violation, one that threatens girls' lives and health. Child brides may become pregnant before their bodies are ready, and they are highly vulnerable to abuse. They are often forced to drop out of school, limiting their future prospects.
Ms. Binta Jalloh knew she needed help avoiding child marriage.
"I explained my situation to a friend, and she advised me to join the Children's Forum Network. Through the network, I was fortunate to be part of the National Girls' Camp."
The week-long girls' empowerment camp, organized by the Office of the First Lady and UNFPA, teaches girls about their health and human rights. It also teaches them financial literacy, computer skills, comprehensive sexuality education, and about advocacy and activism.
The girls, selected from a wide range of backgrounds, also received support from a mentor. "I learned from women who would become my role models through their inspirational stories," Ms. Binta Jalloh said.
Still, when she returned home, her parents could not be persuaded that she would have more potential if she avoided child marriage.
They demanded that she marry the man they had chosen.
"This time, my parents told me they would disown me if I continued to decline the marriage. I was left with no choice," she said. "I married him."
A nightmare unfolds
The marriage was a nightmare, Ms. Binta Jalloh said.
Her husband was already married. "Can you imagine he had another wife who is older than my mother? This had been unknown to my parents and I," she said.
"The older wife ensured I was isolated and assigned all the tasks in the home. I had no friends and I could not interact with the neighbours."
In the evenings, she faced sexual violence from her husband. "When he returned home from work at night, he would force himself on me," she recounted.
Although her husband had promised to send her to school, he changed his tune after the wedding.
"'You are here to pay for all the money your parents took from me so don't even think you are going back to school or to your parents. You are here to satisfy my needs,'" she remembers him telling her.
Months later, she had another opportunity to attend the annual National Girls' Camp.
This time, the lessons about human rights and girls' empowerment encouraged her to make a bold move.
"I decided I had to run away. I went to my elder brother [who lived] in another town and who was unaware of my marriage."
Her brother took her in. "I explained to him the situation. He decided to send me back to school. "
UNFPA is working with the Government and other partners to end child marriage and promote girls' welfare in Sierra Leone.
For instance, through the UNFPA-UNICEF Global Programme to Accelerate Action to End Child Marriage, girls' clubs are being established throughout the country. At these clubs, girls learn their rights and health - including the health risks of early pregnancy and their right to live free of abuse and child marriage. They also receive support and guidance from trusted role models.
Today, Ms. Binta Jalloh is a role model, as well. She is outspoken about her experience, sharing her story with girls, activists and others to help spark change.
She is also in university, and she has big dreams.
"I am currently enjoying life as a student," she told UNFPA. "Someday I hope to save enough money to study to be a medical doctor."