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A change in social norms and individual behaviors at the community level is necessary to eliminate sexual abuse and violence against children, says Mayke Huijbregts of UNICEF Mozambique

Mayke Huijbregts of UNICEF Mozambique
© UNICEF Mozambique
According to Mayke Huijbregts of UNICEF Mozambique, abuse often happens at the household level and is often covered up by both the perpetrators and the families of the victim.

MAPUTO, Mozambique, 13 June 2011 – Mayke Huijbregts is the Chief of Child Protection at UNICEF Mozambique. Mayke is a human rights lawyer trained in the Netherlands. She holds a Master’s degree in Law from the University of Amsterdam with a specialization in international law and human rights obtained in Brussels and Strasbourg. She has worked for UNICEF in FYR Macedonia, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Malawi and joined UNICEF Mozambique in January this year.

What is the nature and extent of the problem of sexual abuse and violence against children in Mozambique?
In Mozambique, there is a high number of premature marriages. More than half of all girls get married before the age of 18 and some 17 per cent of all girls get married before the age of 15, while 42 per cent of girls get pregnant or deliver their first child before their eighteenth birthday. These early marriages and pregnancies are often related to abuse.

Who are the perpetrators of sexual abuse?
Sexual abuse often happens at the household level and often involves people close to the victim, such as family members, friends, relatives and residents of the community, and sometimes also teachers. In many cases, sexual abuse is not coming to light, and if the cases are dealt with at all, it is not uncommon that the family of the victim is paid off and the issue covered up. In effect, at the end of it all, it is as if nothing happened despite the child suffering.

What can be done?
It is very important for us to create public awareness and to create change in both social norms and individual behaviours. This we try to achieve by working closely with non-governmental organizations, religious organizations and other civil society organizations that reach people in their communities. Mass media campaigns and other communication efforts also play an important role in changing social norms and individual behaviour at the community level.

How do you plan to go about addressing the problem?
We need to ensure that everyone knows that sexual abuse is a crime and demonstrate that justice will be done – only then will the problem stop. In 2010, only 5,000 cases of abuse were reported and far fewer were prosecuted. It is also essential to have an integrated approach, in which everyone works together to address the problem. We are currently working with five ministries to have such an integrated approach. In this way, people will know where to report cases, how to report them and what to do. The work involves social workers, health workers, school staff, police, members of the judiciary, etc. In short, we are promoting a multi-sectoral approach in response to child abuse. This is functioning well at the national level, but there is still some way to go to have an integrated, systematic approach to the problem at the district and community levels.  

What are the greatest challenges in the area of child protection?
There is a great lack of human resources. There are very few social workers – only one district in every five has a social worker – and both human capacity and financial resources are extremely limited. More investment in child protection will be needed, and the Government is hoping that both the public and the private sector will play a role in meeting the needs that exist and bridging the funding gaps.

What is the role of behaviour change?
Behaviour change is at the heart of this process, which is why we are investing in behaviour change communications (BCC) through mass media and other channels. BCC has to be expanded and integrated at the community level. Part of our responsibility is to document BCC efforts and demonstrate that there is an impact or an effect arising from these efforts.

What are your goals going forward?
We would like to support and strengthen the 860 community child protection committees in the country, in close collaboration with the Ministry of Women and Social Action, as well as with civil society organizations. These committees represent a front line response at the community level, and we would like the committees to be known and trusted in the communities they serve. Their role will be to look for early signals of distress and abuse and to intervene early on through community case management. We also hope to see a Gabinete de Atendimento (victim support unit) in every district before 2020. To achieve this, we will need to accelerate the mobilization of resources, as financial resources are very limited.

Any final comments?
We need to intensify prevention efforts. All forms of abuse have to stop, and this is what we need to achieve. This can only happen if we succeed in changing social norms and individual behaviours at the community level. As the country develops, making progress in this area is very important.

For more information, please contact:

Arild Drivdal,
UNICEF Mozambique, tel. (+258) 21 481 100; email:  

Gabriel Pereira, UNICEF Mozambique, tel. (+258) 21 481 100; email:



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