What Being 15 Looks Like Around The World

Anyone who's been 15 knows it's not an easy age.

Balancing family, school, relationships, jobs, and other realities of life as a teenager can be stressful, to say the least. Add hormones into the mix and, well, you'd better buckle up for an emotional ride.

But for many girls, those universal challenges are just the beginning of the struggle and hardship faced at this pivotal time in life. In some parts of the world, 15-year-olds must fight for such basic rights as getting an education. They face the prospect of becoming married, whether they want to or not; more than 200 million women around the world have been wed before the age of 15, according to UNICEF. Career options are often limited. Some face discrimination based solely on their gender. War, violence, and conflict leave their lives in jeopardy every single day.

On top of all that, the decisions they make at the brink of adulthood can alter the rest of their lives.

NPR has put those struggles — and the courageous actions young women are taking to succeed in the face of adversity — in the spotlight with a recent series called #15Girls.

NPR correspondents from around the world contributed profiles on young teens who "take risks, break rules, and defy stereotypes to create a better life for themselves."

The media organization also asked listeners to share their perspective on the hardest thing about being 15 by using the hashtag #15girls. More than 1,000 responses poured in, touching on everything from building confidence to dealing with extreme hardship.

NPR shared the photos and experiences of five of the girls featured in the series with Refinery29. Click through to learn more about their moving stories. For more on the series, including full audio and text stories, visit NPR's Goats and Soda Blog.

Photo credit: Jane Greenhalgh/NPR.
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Photo: Dalia Khamissy/NPR.
Fatmeh — Lebanon

All Fatmeh wants is to go back to school. She was a top student in Syria. But that changed when her family fled amid intense fighting in her town. Now, as a refugee in Lebanon, she spends her days working on a farm and helping take care of her six siblings.

"I had a dream that when I came here to Lebanon, I would study here and go to school here and become an Arabic-language teacher here," Fatmeh told NPR. "And then [I hoped] when I go back to Syria, my dream would have been achieved. But it did not work at all with me here."

Read the full story about Fatmeh's journey here.

Caption: Fatmeh is a teenager with a cellphone, surfing the Internet. She's also a Syrian refugee who works in the fields up to 14 hours a day. She is photographed in the living-room area of her family's makeshift shelter.
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Photo: Courtesy of Encarni Pinadado/ NPR.
Stephanie "Mimi" Noemi — El Salvador

Violence and murder are rampant in El Salvador, a country that has been torn apart by gang violence and drug trafficking. Mimi is trying to stay out of harm's way and is helping others do the same by volunteering as a paramedic.

"It feels good to be somebody else's shield," she told NPR.

Read about Mimi — and girls who have been victims of that violence — here.

Caption: Mimi, 15, volunteers at Comandos de Salvamento [Rescue Commands]. She deals with all kinds of emergencies, extreme violence, and people who have been severely injured or killed by the gangs in El Salvador.
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Photo: Jane Greenhalgh/ NPR.
Kamala B.K. — Nepal

Kamala B.K. (pictured) hasn't even turned 15 yet, but she's already been exposed to one harsh reality of life for adult women in western Nepal. A tradition called chaupadi dictates that girls and women must stay outdoors while they have their periods.

So Kamala spends several days and nights each month in a menstrual shed. She's afraid that if she goes indoors, the gods will inflict harm and suffering on her entire family. Girls across the country face similar restrictions.

Prakriti Kandel, another 15-year-old from Nepal, said, "When I'm having my period, I can't touch my grandmother, I can't eat while she's eating. I can't touch the table while she's eating. I can't touch my father, I can't touch my mother." Prakriti is studying for the SATs in hopes of going to college in the United States, she told NPR.

Read more about how these girls manage their periods here.
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Photo: Poulomi Basu/ VII Photo/ NPR.
The Child-Bride Students Of The Veerni Institute — India

Child marriage is illegal in India, but that doesn't stop families from wedding off their daughters in secret as early as age 10. Many of these child brides don't actually go to live with their husbands until they turn 15. Those five years can be crucial for ensuring girls gain education and skills, before their husbands and in-laws get to step in and control their fates.

For girls like Nimmu, a 15-year-old who was wed to a local boy, the solution is the Veerni Institute, a boarding school where nearly half the students are already married. Nimmu's father persuaded her in-laws to allow her to stay in school as long as she gets good grades, NPR reports.

"Before, school wasn't such a big deal to me," Nimmu told NPR. "But this year, I suddenly feel so much pressure, and I've become extremely serious. I want to do very well."

Read more about Nimmu's story and the school here.
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Photo: David Gilkey/ NPR.
Hadia Durani — Afghanistan

As teens in Afghanistan, Hadia Durani and her classmates know they're lucky to have the opportunity to go to school. But in a country where women still face significant barriers in gaining access to education and careers, even physically getting to the Tanweer School in Kabul can be a challenge. Men and boys sometimes heckle the girls as they walk.

"It will just start an argument," Hadia said. "And [the girls] get blamed."

Read more about the students at Tanweer here.

Caption: Hadia Durani is 15. She says she wants to be the president of Afghanistan when she grows up.
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