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Juba, South Sudan – When Poni Helen found out she was pregnant at 16 years old, she was confused and had no idea where the situation would lead. She only had one thing in mind and she was certain of it – she wanted to continue her studies.

At a youth event organized by UNFPA to raise awareness on child marriage, Ms. Poni spoke to an audience of teen girls and boys to share with them her story.

Ms. Poni is now 23, studying law while raising her six-year-old son and working at the same time. The struggle to say no to child marriage and pursue her dream of becoming a lawyer is not easy, she says.

When her parents found out she was pregnant, they beat her up and forced her to live with her boyfriend with a plan of marrying them off later. She protested but obeyed them in the end. After one month, she went back to her parents and asked for forgiveness.

“I gave birth safely and when my baby was five months old, I told my father I want to go back to school but he said, ‘you are already spoiled, you are of no use now,’” Ms. Poni sadly narrated. “It was not intended but it happened, and I have plans in life. I know I made a mistake but I still want to go back to school.” But her father was firm on his decision not to fund her education.

Fortunately, an uncle helped pay for her high school tuition. To ensure that she could continue with her studies, Ms. Poni took on a part-time job as an assistant at a beauty salon. When she finished high school she continued to college, still on her own. Now she is on her second year in law school.

She says she is motivated to achieve greater things in life when she sees empowered women who are thriving in their professions. She also wants to be a lawyer to help the poor people in her country, especially women and girls, whose rights are being trampled on and cannot do anything.

Ms. Poni is actively involved in the advocacy of Crown the Woman, a non-government organization in South Sudan working to empower girls to say no to child marriage. UNFPA works with the NGO and other partners, including the Ministry of Gender, Child and Social Welfare, for the implementation of the Strategic National Action Plan to end child marriage that was launched in June 2018.

“In every community I visit, I take the opportunity to talk to girls and share with them my story. I do this to remind them to take care of themselves and also for them to be aware that they, too, have that choice to say no and pursue their dream,” she says.

“I do not believe in early marriage. My parents tried to force me to get married even when I was already pregnant and cows have been brought to us as dowry, but I said no,” Ms. Poni proudly declares.