She escaped child marriage at 16 in Zimbabwe – today Julieth Gudo is a PhD holder

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If you told her teenage self she’d be doing her research fellowship at a prestigious Cape Town university, she would probably have laughed. Julieth Gudo was 16 when she came to South Africa as a refugee but today she holds a PhD in law.

Tough upbringing in Zimbabwe

Due to her extremely difficult upbringing in Zimbabwe, Julieth Gudo was unable to continue her schooling after finishing grade seven when her parents passed away. She was just seven at the time.

Her brother was sent to live with an uncle while she went to live with her paternal grandparents.

Julieth also lost her paternal grandmother, who had taken on the role of guardian when she was a youngster.

The model student was devastated when her desire to continue attending school was not supported. 

Undeterred, she continued going to class. Every day she’d walk to school hungry and without shoes, even when she was turned away for not paying school fees. 

Though she was discouraged from learning, she was one of the top three students in her class at the age of 12.

Julieth was well on her way to convincing her grandfather to pay her school fees when her grandmother, who advocated for her education, died.

Coming from a family church norm that expected girls to get married young, a man who was more than four times her age, came for her hand in marriage. 

Her grandfather never actively opposed it but Julieth couldn’t bear the idea of giving up her dreams.

With the help of an aunt, who gave her some money, she left home at 2am one morning, never to return.

Julieth ran for more than 4km to get a bus from Zaka district, where she was living, to her maternal grandmother’s house in the city of Bulawayo. 

But when she eventually got there, she encountered more suffering.

Julieth was forced to work around the house: cooking, cleaning and doing laundry and she still wasn’t going to school. 

Four years later, she’d had enough of being a slave to her family and left home again.

She was 16 and living on the streets in Beitbridge when she met a group of people who were helping others cross the border into South Africa.

Daring escape to South Africa

A dedicated Julieth made the decision to leave home rather than continue to face the severe socio-economic challenges and impending child marriage. 

Together with other people, Julieth made a the trip to South Africa in search of better opportunities. However, they lacked the necessary documentation, so they made their way through the borders and across the crocodile-infested Limpopo River.

This is a trip that is forever engrained in the memory of Dr Gudo, as she thought she was going to lose her life on that day. 

With nothing to lose and everything to live for, she joined the group. Julieth was the youngest of them.

Because they were entering the country illegally, they crossed the border by walking through the crocodile infested Limpopo River. To make matters worse, heavy rains on their journey caused the water level to rise.

“I thought I was going to lose my life that day,” Julieth recalls.

When they eventually reached safety in SA, she was dumped on the side of the road because she hadn’t paid for the illegal crossing. She immediately regretted leaving home.

“I told myself that maybe I was just born to suffer,” she says.

Julieth was rescued by a truck driver after being taken in at a refugee center for women in Musina, South Africa, in which she resided for eight years. The facility was funded and supported by the United Nations, UNICEF, Save the Children UK, IOM, Doctors Without Borders, and the Red Cross. 

Finally, she had found the safe haven that she had been searching for: she had a warm bed, dry clothes, enough food and she did odd jobs around the shelter for extra money.

UNICEF rescues Dr Gudo

Six years later, she was presented with an opportunity she couldn’t resist.

Juliet went back to school with funding from UNICEF. At the age of 20, after missing school for 8 years, she hit the books again.

She has never looked back since and proceeded to obtain her LLB degree at the University of Venda. She then completed her masters and PHD degrees at the University of Cape Town.

“School was that place where I could hide and run away from my problems,” she tells YOU. 

HAPPY AT LAST: Against the odds, she graduated with her PhD in December.

Julieth passed her matric exams with flying colours. She obtained distinctions in three subjects.

After matric she was accepted at the University of Limpopo, where she studied law.

Happy and free at last

Julieth worked part time to fund her studies but during her second year she received an international scholarship that refunded her for her first year. 

‘People don’t understand the emancipation that comes with scholarships. It changes people’s lives’

Dr Julieth Gudo

When she completed her LLB she began to see that it was possible to continue learning.

Julieth applied for her masters, then her PhD at the University of Cape Town. Against the odds, she graduated with her PhD in December.

Now she’s doing her research fellowship at UCT on the role of NGOs in advancing good governance and development in Africa, which means the university is paying her to continue her research on this topic. 

“There’s nothing that can make me think, ‘This is impossible’. Every time I meet a challenge, I know I’m going to conquer it with time,” she says. – JacarandaFM/YOU/News24


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