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When I discovered I was pregnant, my world came crashing down. I thought of how my classmates would look at me upon finding out. I thought of how my siblings would feel when they heard the news. And I thought of how my poor parents would react. I was only a high school girl. At a time when my studies should have been my focus, poverty and ignorance played a fast one on me.

Though I had been born and raised in a middle class home, by the time I reached secondary school, my family had plunged into the worst kind of poverty you can imagine. At that time, having enough food in our house was an uphill task. My siblings and I worked on the farm daily to either plant or harvest the crops that both sustained us and helped pay our school fees. We were nine children and we were all in school.

On several occasions, we missed school in order to work on the farm. Life was tough, but like they say, “Tough times don’t last, but tough people do.”

I applaud my parents every day because they didn’t give up on our education. When they learned I was pregnant, they were shocked and devastated, but they told me I did the best thing in not aborting the baby. When my son was only six months old, they took him under their care, and even though our community advised them not to, they sent me back to school.

The opportunity they gave me to continue my studies I took as a challenge; I concentrated on reaching university and graduated top of my university class. Today, my parents are proud of me, not because I had a child, but because I proved our community wrong.

Telling my story, though, makes me cry. I look back at the community I grew up in and see that my age mates and classmates didn’t make it as far as I have. Many dropped out of school because their parents either did not have money to continue sending them or could no longer make the financial sacrifice. In most cases, though, it was because they were girls.

I look back on my school days and remember girls who also became pregnant, but their parents didn’t send them back to school. I remember those who ended up leaving school when fees were raised. I remember them getting married early, getting pregnant early, and returning back to toil on the farms alongside their parents. If I close my eyes and think deeply, I remember girls who died of HIV and other health complications because they didn’t have the money or knowledge to take care of themselves.

When I walk down into the village I grew up in, I cry every time for the teenagers I find pregnant and married there. And when I visit the village’s lone government secondary school, I lament at the number of teenage pregnancies and girl drop outs registered every year. My heart bleeds and compels me to act.

I am determined to change the paradigm. I want a world where girls will go to school and become great leaders. A world where girls will not only learn chemistry, literature, and English, but also sex education and leadership skills. It is for this reason that my organization, Rescue Women – Cameroon, has started creating “Girls Lead Clubs” in the most rural secondary schools in the country.

Since 2013 Rescue Women – Cameroon has provided 85 rural girls with scholarships to remain in school or go back to school. While our scholarships help meet the financial need to keep girls in school, we quickly learned that another kind of support is needed to help girls in school excel. Through our “Girls Lead Clubs” girls have the opportunity to learn more about themselves and their choices in life and strive for greatness. They receive mentoring, sex education, and courses on girls’ rights and leadership.

“Girls Lead Clubs” launched in two schools this September and will launch in three others next month. I am hoping to be in 50 schools by this time next year. We learned from the principal of one of the schools that it has registered ten pregnancies and six crude abortions in a single academic year, though it has less than 65 girls enrolled. This principal appreciates our endeavor to educate and empower girls so that they can complete their education.

When I look back at my education journey, I tell myself that it was worth every struggle. Instead of being one of those girls who dropped out of school, married early, or even died young, I am an educated and empowered woman who is determined to hold the hands of other girls who are at risk.

While the road is dark and bumpy, I know there is light at the end of the tunnel. If I was able to make it this far, the girls I work with will be able to as well. The journey has only begun.

I know that education is key, and I want all girls to get an education. One step at a time, we will get there.

Nakinti Nofuru is a contributor from Cameroon. This piece was originally published on World Pulse. Sign up to get international stories of women leading social change delivered to your inbox every month here.

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