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A mother at 18, girl steers course of own life to pursue dream

Rumbek, South Sudan -- Elizabeth Ayumpou Balang is a teacher at a nursery and primary school in Rumbek, a town in central South Sudan. It was her dream job but something that she had to work extra hard for.

In South Sudan, four out of 10 girls are married before the age of 18. Elizabeth is part of the statistics – she was married and gave birth to her first child at 18. What sets her apart though from other young mothers was her determination to finish her studies despite having a family.

“I went back to school because I wanted to continue my studies and become a teacher,” Elizabeth says. Since then, she balanced her time between taking care of her family and attending her classes. It was challenging, she says, but her determination was stronger.

Now 23, she teaches at a local school and finds fulfillment contributing to the empowerment of her students, especially the girls, through education.

As part of the school curriculum, primary level students are taught modules on gender and HIV and AIDS, and family planning.

“We teach these subjects so they become aware of gender issues and their rights, especially the girls, as well as to educate them on how to protect themselves from HIV and other sexually transmitted infections,” Elizabeth explains.

The students respond well to the subjects, the teacher says. “They are encouraged to participate in the discussion especially when they realize that it is beneficial for them to be informed about these issues.”

Elizabeth shows the module on gender and HIV & AIDS that she uses for her class. ©UNFPA South Sudan/Arlene Alano


Elizabeth is expecting to deliver her second child any time soon. The five-year spacing between her two pregnancies was made possible with family planning – something that she hopes more South Sudanese women and couples will be able to practice.

“If I follow cultural norms, I am not supposed to practice family planning. But I decide for myself and my husband supports me,” she says. Because of the conflict and instability the country is facing, she says having more children that you can’t feed makes the situation worse.

Gordon Magang, one of the midwives deployed by UNFPA to Rumbek under its Strengthening Midwifery Services Project, says Elizabeth is not just a good role model for young girls; she also sets a good example for pregnant women with the way she takes care of herself.

“She regularly comes to the clinic for antenatal check-ups and to receive her vitamins. She wants to make sure that both she and her baby are healthy,” the midwife shares.

South Sudan has been dubbed a dangerous country to be a mother because of poor maternal health statistics. In 2006, government data shows that for every 100,000 live births, 2,059 South Sudanese women die from pregnancy and childbirth complications. A more recent 2015 data from the UN shows that the number has improved to 789 deaths per 100,000 live births.

In a country that has one of the highest maternal death rates in the world, women’s acceptance of family planning and their proactive attitude in seeking health care can significantly contribute to better maternal and newborn health.