In 2012, it was all joy, laughter and praises for 17 year old Monica Atong when she topped the list of the secondary school certificate examinations as the best student with 85 points.
To many, Monica Atong was the heroin of the year and a symbol of the government’s efforts to advance girl-child education in South Sudan.
She got so much support and applause from all people from all walks of life and her mother was all smiles.
High profile government officials including the first lady Mary Ayen as well as State officials in Jonglei at the time – where Atong hails from, promised to support her further education.
“I got so much support and gifts in form of money for my farther studies,” says Atong.
In 2013, Atong was admitted in one of the prestigious Egyptian higher Institutions of learning – Cairo University, faculty of Arts. She was studying under government scholarship.
With the support Atong got from well-wishers, everything was going well for her until she returned to South Sudan for her end-of-year holiday.
This unfortunately coincided with the December 15 outbreak of civil war in the country.
Just like the rest of the citizens, Atong and her family lost everything including their family home, which she said was reduced to ashes after the village she lived in was set ablaze.
“Our house burnt and we lost everything. All the money from well-wishers for my education was kept in the house, it was burnt all. We were not clever enough to put it in the bank, we lost everything,” Atong narrates.
This incident turned Atong’s life upside down. Her family was displaced and helpless.
She also lost her opportunity to return to Egypt and continue with her studies. Homelessness, poverty, and lack of support left Atong vulnerable.
As time flew by, Monica Atong –who was now 18 years of age, out of school and with no hope of ever returning to the university, eloped with a 26 year old soldier, after realizing she was pregnant for him. Atong became his second wife.
“Although I was 18, I think I wasn’t mature enough to make the right decision. If I could turn back the time I will not choose marriage over education,” Atong said.
Currently, Atong has two children of 5 and 1 and has recently separated from her husband.
Although Atong has not disclosed the reason why she left her marriage, Atong hinted a number of times how unhappy she was in her marital home.
The mother of two became homeless once again, this time living in the open with her two sons in Gumbo-Sherikat- at the outskirts of the capital – Juba. This drew concerns from some residents who wondered why the young mother was left homeless.
As weeks passed by, Atong managed to construct a makeshift for herself and her two children. To date, she survives with support she gets from well-wishers.
“At this point, I regretted everything. This is when I realized I made the worst mistake of my life for getting married before finishing my education,” she said.
“We as young girls, we are not in a race with marriage and if you get married before finishing your education, you will end up regretting like me and it may be too late to stand up again.”
Atong now encourages young girls to focus on their studies regardless of their situation saying education is the only thing that can guarantee a good life for them in future and be appreciated by one’s family and community.
She emphasized that education can allow girls to make good choices and raise their future families better.
Atong calls on young girls to learn from her mistake and avoid falling in to the same situation she now finds herself in.
“For me I didn’t have anyone to learn from, but at least the young girls listening to me right now, have me to learn from,” says Atong.
In an exclusive interview with Eye radio’s Michael Daniel – the mother of two – says she is now ready to embark on rebuilding her life.
Atong says, if she gets support from well-wishers, she wishes to return to school and get a degree.
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