Passion to learn guided woman from a child marriage to a PhD

Child marriage is one of the most widespread forms of violence against children in Zimbabwe. One woman out of three aged 20 to 49 was married before the age of 18, and 5% of girls are married before the age of 15, according to UNICEF.

One woman who fought back hard is Dr Julieth Gudo, who was pressured into child marriage at the age of 13, which forced her to leave school after completing grade seven. Back then, life was bleak, but now her dream of becoming a professor and a lecturer is within reach, thanks, according to her, to the education she received while living in a refugee camp in South Africa.

At the end of 2021, Gudo obtained a doctorate in commercial law and is currently a post-doctoral fellow at the Centre for Comparative Law in Africa at the University of Cape Town. She said her desire to get to “the highest level of education” pushed her.

Gudo was born in Zimbabwe’s Masvingo province and, like her peers, she was earmarked for child marriage while in primary school.

“Back then in my village, Zaka, we did not have televisions – at least in my family. Many families in my village didn’t have televisions. We lived in dire poverty. The only thing that mattered was to get married, make children and life should just continue.

“But, for some reason, I felt it was not right. I was just 12 and I was doing grade seven,” she said.

“Some of my friends got married even as I was doing grade five ... As I was doing grade seven, the pressure was on me. But I loved school, I loved education. I knew I was a child, but I was not given that chance. But at school, I felt I was given that opportunity to just be a child. And I was doing well at school. And that praise from my teachers who felt I was an intelligent child validated me.”

Fleeing from home

She ran away from home and went to Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second-largest city, to live with her maternal grandmother. Life there was not rosy. She did not go back to school but sold clothes at nearby farms.

The fact that she was not taken back to school and the child labour she was subjected to drove her to escape to Beitbridge, Zimbabwe’s border [with South Africa] at the age of 16.

In Beitbridge, Gudo met people who were paid to help Zimbabweans illegally cross into South Africa through undesignated entry points. After negotiations, they told her that they could cross on foot and then board a vehicle in the town of Musina to take her to Johannesburg, where she would later pay them after finding a job.

“The journey was traumatising. We walked from Beitbridge to the South African side. It was dark. Ducking soldiers. The water in the river was so high I never thought I would make it. When the journey starts, the people that help you to cross behave like thugs. Nobody cared. Every person was taking care of themselves,” she said.

Once on the other side of the border, she was dumped in the bush near Musina. A local truck driver took her to a refugee centre where she stayed until she was 20 years old. Authorities at the refugee camp took her to school, and she passed grade 12 with distinctions.

Higher education

When it finally came to university education, she enrolled at the University of Limpopo for a bachelor degree in law (LLB), working part-time to pay her fees. She was later awarded an American-based scholarship called the General Board of Global Ministries Scholarship.

After completing her LLB, she applied to the University of Cape Town for a masters degree in commercial law (LLM) and graduated in 2016. Then a PhD followed.

Financial assistance

Throughout her academic life, financial help saw her through, Gudo said. There was the Margaret McNamara Education Grants for Women, the Canon Collins Postgraduate Scholarship, and financial support from the University of Cape Town Post-graduate Funding Office. The University of Cape Town Law Faculty Administration Office provided grant and administrative support.

“It has always been my dream to be very educated. There was a time when I needed education and I was denied that opportunity. I used to cry every day watching other kids going to school and, at that time, I thought I would never, ever go back to school,” she said.

“I decided that, if God could give me a chance to go back to school, I would not let go. One thing led to the other and I could not let go. I had to continue until I got to the highest level of education. And, honestly, it brings a sense of satisfaction just to know where I was and where I am today. It’s a miracle. It taught me how important education is because it really changes your life.”

She is a post-doc now but just wants to be a researcher – “a legal researcher, a policy researcher”. Gudo also wants to be a lecturer. “Ultimately, I want to be a professor. I love to do research. I love to do policy research, especially on socio-economic issues. To find solutions to problems that our societies are facing,” Gudo said.

She said her disadvantaged background influenced her to look at the problems of vulnerable women and children in terms of her research work. “I am very concerned about poor governance, corruption challenges that are so severe in African leadership, African governments.

“They take so much from the resources that are supposed to be distributed to the vulnerable. Some of the problems [the vulnerable] are facing should not be to the extent they are today if our governments were doing something about it.”