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I remember the amazement and excitement I felt the moment my mother handed me that admission letter. This small slip of paper marked the beginning of a new life—I was going to high school.

My new school was many miles away from home. It was a place I had never been before, and it took hours, a whole night’s journey, to get there.

I remember the many questions that ran through my mind that night we traveled. Most significantly: Will I make friends, or will I be bullied? If I am bullied, how will I react? These were worries I imagine many girls joining high school had at the time.

Early the next morning, we arrived at the school. It was very beautiful with colorful, orderly flowerbeds, lots of trees, and a neatly cut grass sports field. There were many clean-looking and well-organized buildings, and in the distance were small hills. A short distance away from the classrooms were student hostels. The students looked tidy in their school uniforms and humbled by the quiet environment. I loved the school the moment I first set my feet on its grounds. This was to be my new home for the next four years.

Classes started, days passed, and all was well. There was no bullying allowed, and I found the girls there were friendly. I also learned that I was the first and only girl from my Maasai community to attend the school. The other girls were all from different communities, and they all seemed to be especially interested in my culture.

They asked me lots of questions: Why didn’t I have my earlobes pierced like other girls from my community? Did I live in a manyatta? Did I sometimes dress like my people, in Maasai regalia?

Two years passed in the usual way. I made friends, studied, and did well in classes. But in my third year of high school, things started to get interesting. By that time, most girls my age had boyfriends, unlike me. One day, a friend of mine asked me if I had a boyfriend, and to her surprise, I told her that the thought had never crossed my mind. She thought I was joking. I advised her to concentrate on schoolwork rather than boys. She laughed as she walked away.

When school closed for recess that year, I returned home to find out my father’s elder brother had started negotiating my marriage to his friend’s son. The son was a stranger to me. I had never seen him nor spoken to him. My mother explained to me my uncle’s intention, but I couldn’t believe this was happening.

I immediately thought of the conversation I had had with my friend, when I told her it was not the time to have a boyfriend. And now I was facing the possibility of a forced/early marriage. This was the last thing I wanted. I loved school and didn’t want to leave it. I thought of how my parents had struggled to pay my school fees, and I thought of the impression I would make on my siblings by leaving school. I, as the first born, was meant to set the example. I did not want this to be the precedent I set. That’s when I decided I would get a boyfriend after all. As opposed to a forced marriage with a stranger, a boyfriend would be my choice, and I’d make sure it was someone I could relate to.

One day soon after, I attended a function where many young people gathered together with community leaders. I was approached by a young, tall, handsome, and educated gentleman. He introduced himself to me, and from then on we became good friends. After I completed high school and was just joining college, he proposed to me, and when I was 19, we married.

This foiled my uncle’s plans to have me married off by force to someone of his choice who was a stranger to me.

Education was my priority, and I never thought of getting married at that point in my life, but at age 19 I chose to. I made this decision to prevent my uncle from making it for me. Fortunately my husband never stopped me from furthering my education. He knew I did well in school, so instead he encouraged me and gave me every support I needed.

My life in high school and college gave me a different life from most girls in my community. While everything seemed to be going well for my boy cousins back home, many of my girl cousins went through forced marriages and suffered a lot. Some suffered at the hands of men who beat them and treated them very poorly. Unfortunately, I couldn’t help them. I was as young as they were. It hurt me to see them suffer, yet, at that time, I had no solution for them.

It was later that I realized I could help prevent other girls from suffering as my cousins did. Today, through my organization, Girls’ Empowerment Program and Network (GEPaN)–Tanzania, I stand up for girls in my community, in Tanzania, and around the world.

I fight for girls’ rights and for their access to quality education. I believe that through education and the understanding of their rights, girls can become better women, leaders, mothers, and wives. I thank God for the chance to make this difference in girls’ lives.

I also educate men, morans (warriors), and boys on the need to support the rights of their sisters, wives, mothers, and other girls and women.

Unfortunately, in my experience, the traditional and cultural norms of indigenous/pastoralist communities are deep-rooted and not quickly changed. It may take a long time before forced marriages in Tanzania are a thing of the past.

Although it will take time for these harmful practices to be eradicated, I appreciate the efforts my country of Tanzania made this year. In July, the High Court made early marriage illegal, raising the age of marriage eligibility for girls from 14 to 18. This is a win worth celebrating, and I intend to educate my community and country on this new law.

With my organization, I stand by all girls and want them to know of the support we provide, whether they are in Tanzania or in the world at large. I want them to know they have the right to make choices in their lives—in marriage, education, and beyond.

I am a girl who made her own choices.

I say to all girls who may be reading this, “Let education be your priority, because the rest shall follow. Education is a sure way to empowerment and ending poverty. It is your fundamental human right.”

Rosemary Ntoipo is a contributor from Tanzania. 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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