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Mozambique, 10 December 2015: Meeting child brides

By Cate Heinrich

© UNICEF Mozambique/2015/Alex Marques

 
Hailing from Australia, there is nothing new about travelling long, vast distances to reach a city, or even a lack of medical care in isolated rural towns. But as I left the main sealed road, about 8 hours north of the capital in Mozambique, Maputo, I was thankful that our UNICEF driver, José Manhiça, was confident behind the wheel of the 4WD. The dusty, narrow roads completely disappeared, and finally we walked the final distance to meet the child brides who live here.

The isolation of girls growing up in these villages resonated with me as I reflected on my own childhood in Australia, and the choices I had as a young girl.

There were similarities between these girls and me. I also lived in a rural community as a young child; my father was a farmer, my mother a teacher.

Without even realizing it at the time, as a young girl, I had rights. I never saw it this way. For me, it was a normal childhood. I played, I caught a school bus 25km to school each way, and I loved school and my friends. Despite having two older brothers, there was never any difference between us at school. I followed my dreams, and my parents supported me along this journey. At 13, I was only just entering high school, which seemed like a momentous challenge at the time – a step from being a child to becoming a teenager (the “tween” years as they are now known).

To meet child brides, and talk about their lives, had a profound impact on me. Firstly, we spent time creating a bond with the help of amazing community social workers, Maria Namburete and Basílio. Sometimes we needed translation from the local languages to Portuguese before we could truly communicate.

The girls were curious, why were we interested in them? One of the girls, Albertina, 16, living in an isolated village in Panda district, even challenged us, “Why do you want to ask me these things?” she asked. “Everyone is married here, there is nothing special about my situation. I helped my family when I got married as they no longer need to support me now.”

And she was right. When there is no family support to continue school, when there are no options of a job when you leave school, what choice would any of us make in the same situation? As another child bride, Lucia, told me, “In the end it wasn't my choice (to marry at 15). My family convinced me it was the right thing to do.”

I had always viewed child marriage as an outsider, and living in Australia I would think, “How could anyone let their daughter get married when they are still at school, sometimes not even a teenager yet?”

But suddenly, I understood the real complexity of child marriage, and the solutions that are required to address this deep-rooted cultural practice. It is not simple.

If I had grown up in a village in Mozambique, compared to a small town in Australia, would I also be married at 12, 13 or 16? The probability is yes, for almost one in two girls in Mozambique are married before the age of 18, and 14% before the age of 15. The numbers are higher for rural communities.

These girls welcomed me into their lives for a brief moment, the ability for women from such different continents to bond and talk about our similarities, rather than differences, always amazes me. Lucia’s family wouldn't let us leave the village without a fresh coconut cut from the tree. Albertina’s baby, Asina, came to give me a beautiful hug goodbye (abraco), it brought tears to my eyes.

Every story I heard from these girls was different, as in life everywhere, not one single story was the same. Some of these girls I met were happy to be married; others were sadly not. The one glaring similarity was that these girls were “helping” their families through marriage. They had no choices, but to hope that the man they married was a good one, that the man they married would support them and their baby. And for many, this is unfortunately not the case and they return to their families, this time with a baby to support as well.
 

Further information: Child marriage in Mozambique

“Child marriage in Mozambique is a complex issue, which requires not only change at the policy level and among community attitudes, but also improvement in education and opportunities for these young girls, so they have an option to continue their studies and are not forced to marry for economic reasons,” UNICEF Child Protection Specialist, Ana Maria Machaieie.

Mozambique has one of the highest rates of child marriage in the world, affecting almost one in every two girls. It impacts on the health of girls due to adolescent pregnancy, with a higher risk of maternal and child mortality, nutritional status and education.

UNICEF, together with the Government of Mozambique and UNFPA, supports the Global Programme on accelerating action to end child marriage, which promotes changes in community attitudes and behaviour to child marriage, advocates for policy reforms and supports quality education and economic opportunities.

 

 
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