University. It’s a weird one. We exist in a little bubble of safety, delaying D day (aka the real world) as long as possible. For a girl I met in Swaziland, the concept of university has an entirely different meaning than it does for me and most of my friends. Ayanda sees it not just as a golden and cherished opportunity, but vitally, as her ticket out of poverty. But typically, nothing is ever free.

When I was 19, I decided to spend one year in the beautiful country of Swaziland in Southern Africa to work in a children’s home for formerly abused girls. The girls that lived with me were luckier than most. They had been rescued from their cruel and nightmarish pasts, having to cope with sexual assault on a daily basis. In such a patriarchal society as Swaziland, a girl’s only role is to grow up to be a wife. Seen but not heard is a reality for women and girls, and in many cases, rape is used as a punishment when this hierarchy is contested. For these young girls, that had battled with this reality growing up, there was only one way to change things for the better: education.

‘In life, I desire to be a river, watering the dry trees near the riverbed, crossing countries with loud songs and flowing like there has never been a drought. A river so strong, that it can move mountains’.

This was Ayanda’s answer then I asked her why an education is so important to her. ‘Without knowledge, I have no power’.

The trauma she was forced to face during her childhood seems unimaginable to most of us: rape, starvation and selling her body in order to survive. Each morning, she would see smiling children in their smart uniforms on their way too school, but Ayanda couldn’t afford to join them. Peeping through the cracked windows into a classroom of opportunities, she craved an education and decided that nothing would stop her from achieving it. She used to ‘borrow’ uniform hanging on the washing lines around her township, and each day, sneak into school, camouflaged by a sea of red uniform. This would come with consequences, of course, but no beatings from teachers or elder men in her community would stop her from getting an education. They were the fire that fuelled her on in her battle to end female and child abuse.

Fast forward 10 years and Ayanda has achieved the impossible. Despite only 3 years of formal education during her childhood, and some guidance from a pretty clueless teacher (me) she’s studying for a degree at Viterbo University, Wisconsin! This is absolutely unheard of in a country where girls face the largest of hurdles to earn even a primary school education, let alone university! Completing her degree would make her an example to every girl that’s suffered the same way Ayanda has; to empower women, and end the perception that men could abuse women at their own will.

However, Ayanda’s journey could be cut short in a blink of an eye, if she cannot raise $4,000 by the end of the week. She currently works four jobs, and somehow between all that, has managed to achieve top grades. This girl is fighting for an education to prove to everyone in Swaziland that knowledge is power; power that can shake up the rigid patriarchal view that dominates Swaziland and end abuse against women.

As we come to the end of our holidays and prepare to go back to university, think about girls like Ayanda who would do anything to be in our position. I’ve witnessed first hand the immense pain and struggles that girls in Swaziland go through in order to learn. Education opens doors to opportunities so lets help Ayanda’s blow the bloody doors off!

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