“I am used to the difficulties,” says Cira Kanote, 16. Bent over a muddy river with her baby daughter Daby tied to her back, she scoops up some dirt in her calabash, a container made of gourd, and carefully sifts through it.

Married when she was only 14, Cira became pregnant immediately by her 36-year-old husband. The pregnancy was difficult. After one month, she woke to discover that her husband had left. Her father-in-law, Ousmane, 65, told her he had gone to Equatorial Guinea to work. Cira hasn’t heard from him since.

Cira carried her pregnancy to term and named her baby Daby, after a bird found in these parts. The baby is sickly, she tells me. In the blazing heat of a morning in May in the Kayes region of western Mali, I can see pearls of sweat on the baby’s forehead. She naps fitfully as her mother works.

In Kossaya village Cira’s story is hardly unusual. According to the primary school management committee, 100 percent of girls are either married or at least promised to a man before they turn 18. Almost no child brides finish their schooling.

Boys drop out of school too, but poverty and traditional gender roles have made it especially hard to convince parents to send and keep their daughters in school. Marrying off a girl means one less mouth to feed, and it also means dowry for the girl’s family—usually livestock, a precious asset.

Out of the four children in Cira’s family, the only one still going to school is her brother. The other three, all girls, are either married or working.

When Cira arrives at the goldfield with Daby at around 10 every morning, her workday is already well underway. On a typical morning, she wakes before daybreak. After bathing, she sweeps the home and courtyard and makes breakfast for her in-laws. It’s only then that she can go out to try to earn money. The girls she works with have similar stories; married to men who are 20 years older, and who have been chosen for them by their families.

Cira regrets having had to stop school. “I liked school,” she says wistfully. “School is good.” She used to dream about becoming a community health worker. The nearest healthcare is in the next village. During the rainy season, when roads are washed out, there is no way to go there and families must rely on traditional medicine and herbs.

I ask Cira if she finds her life difficult. She won’t say so – her reality is that of all the young women around here. But she finds tilling work hard, and that some of the loads she has to carry are heavy.

“There’s a real problem of early marriage,” explains Salif Kebe, the principal of Kossaya fundamental school. “Girls are given away very early, sometimes in second grade, third grade. So I go to households and I tell parents: you should let the girl study. I try to convince them to let them finish high school.”

People like Salif who are trying to promote girls’ education are facing a monumental task. A whopping 49 percent of girls in Mali are married before 18. More often than not, this means dropping out of school: only 12 percent of girls in Kayes region complete their primary schooling. Early marriage can also translate into child labor and early pregnancy. The vast majority of girls – 89 percent – also experience female genital mutilation, making pregnancies even more difficult.

Cira’s father wishes there was a high school in the village. Perhaps if there had been one, Cira’s fate might have been different. But the nearest high school is in the neighboring town.

Because her husband abandoned her so early, Cira doesn’t know much about him, and can’t say whether she would prefer him back or not. Last year, however, he sent money. Her father-in-law, Ousmane, who is blind, remembers being overcome with joy. Ousmane’s other sons built a big house. In a village where everyone lives in a simple round hut with a straw roof, the longhouse with solid walls and a tin roof has become the envy of neighbors. When the house was finished, Ousmane’s children brought him inside, and he touched the walls. Cira now lives in the new house with Daby and her in-laws.

But having the nicest house in town is a small consolation for the harsh realities Cira faces.

In Kayes, thanks to support from Norway, UNICEF is distributing over 14,000 school kits to children who are at risk of dropping out. Just having notebooks and pens can mean the difference between parents choosing to send their kids to school or not. We’re also setting up 60 centers in the region, equipped with tables and school benches, to help get children like Cira back into school. A nine-month specialized curriculum prepares them for formal school the year after.

But a lot more support and resources are needed. And it’s our collective responsibility to make sure children like Cira experience a real childhood; one that is spent in school, and not as a 16-year-old mother in a gold field.

This story was originally featured on UNICEF.