She wants to complete her education but she has two children, both below the ages of 5 who she must care for as well.
Jeremiah laughs, interrupting her thoughts, and she pulls him closer to her chest. He is her second child, and from a marriage of her choice.
Agnes was married once before. “But it was not love,” she says as she strokes Jeremiah’s hair, who obviously is unaware of what his mother has been through.
At the age of 15, Agnes’ parents forced her to marry *Bruce, who was almost twice her age. He was an authority figure in the area, more specifically in the law enforcement sector.
Agnes explains that where she comes from, it’s a show of respect for children to obey their parents’ or elders’ decision.
“My family wanted money…so I had no choice but to marry him.”
It was a typical customary marriage, with a large feast and brideprice, she says. Sadly, Agnes was pulled out of school weeks short of her Grade Eight national exams.
“He was possessive; he’d restrict me from going outdoors or talking to other people my age. If I did, he would call me a prostitute and at times beat me,” she says, with no emotions showing.
Shortly after, Agnes fell pregnant with her first baby. She was 16 years old, and by local law, Agnes is still regarded a child.
Her gaze now fixed on the face of the interviewer, she recounts the lonely journey.
It was a confusing period in her life - forced into marriage and now forced into motherhood, with little to no proper knowledge on any of this. Added on was the emotional strain from her husband denying that the baby was his.
“I had no one to talk to,” she adds. She’d talk to her bestfriend, but what difference would this make…she was a child too.
Agnes says she did approach a local female pastor in the area at one time, hoping she would help her.
“The pastor told me to return to my husband and try to be happy because I already had a baby on the way,” Agnes says, anger slightly showing.
In 2015 the next year, Agnes was allowed to return to school.
“I managed to complete Grade Eight, passing my national exams, while hiding my pregnancy from the teachers. The education system does not allow students to attend school while pregnant,” she adds.
After having her first baby girl, *Marie, Agnes wanted to continue her education. Bruce however, wouldn’t help Agnes to realise this dream.
Agnes left Marie with her mother and ran away to a boarding school where she catered for her own fees.
Bruce remarried and stopped financial assistance to baby Marie altogether.
“He told me to remarry if I wanted someone to help take care of my baby.”
Just like that, her first marriage ended as abruptly as it had started. She was now totally alone.
“You either have your family or your husband’s family. I had no one as my safety net,” she says.
As a single mother, she felt the urge to remarry. But this time, she fell in love.
Jeremiah yawns, as if to make known his presence and Agnes smiles down at him. Jeremiah is a plump little boy - round cheeks, chubby arms and legs. It’s obvious that Agnes has been taking good care of him.
“I was pregnant with him when I sat for my Grade 10 exams too, last year,” she says, nodding down towards Jeremiah.
Agnes has taken this year off school to take care of Jeremiah while Marie remains with her mother.
It’s been three years and three months now since Bruce stopped financial support for his daughter.
Agnes has been visiting the local Child Protection office for assistance with a court order to Bruce for maintenance money for 3-year-old Marie.
Child Protection officer *Philip would like to fast-track the process to help Agnes but has competing priorities. Part of his work includes him doing reports and referrals for women inmates, child custody cases to the provincial hospital, the Family Sexual Violence Unit (FSVU), the district court.
He also does customary mediation, does visitation and counselling, provides marriage certificates, assists village and district court with trainings on child welfare, how to organise their work to improve referrals pathways.
As the only Child Protection officer in town, and also responsible for the provincial office, Philip deals with all referral cases either through court or by police, or cases that come to him directly.
UNICEF is committed to supporting the training and capacity of child protection officers in Southern Highlands Province on the Lukautim Piknini Act and the Juvenile Justice Act.
In the cases like Agnes, child marriage can be minimised with awareness of the legislation that are in place to protect children, including prevention of early child marriage.
In 12 years’ time, Marie would be 15 years old, the same age has her mother (Agnes) when she was forced to marry. But Agnes shakes her head rather strongly to emphasize her stand;
“My daughter will not go through this. It stops with me now,” Agnes says.
*Names have been changed to protect identities