It’s an often-overlooked crisis that more than 125 million African women are or were child brides. As the African Union meets in Lusaka to figure out how to stop the practice, SIMON ALLISON travels to Mozambique to see how child marriage impacts local communities
INHAMBANE, MOZAMBIQUE – Albertina is crying, and who can blame her? The teenager, who looks younger than her 17 years, sits on a straw mat on the bare ground outside her house, holding on tight to her one-year-old boy as she is interrogated by a ring of social workers and a couple of journalists. These strangers, who she has never met before and will probably never meet again, are asking her intimate questions about her relationship and life choices. Did she marry too young? Did she make a mistake by dropping out of school? Does she really love her husband?
We are here, in this remote village in southern Mozambique, at the invitation of Unicef, the United Nations Children’s Fund. Ahead of this week’s ground-breaking African Union (AU) summit to end child marriage, Unicef is trying to get journalists to pay attention to an issue that is chronically under-reported, and to highlight what they are doing to solve the problem. Unicef has brought us to see Albertina, a child bride in Inhassune village. Like many of her friends, she got married at 15, and pregnant shortly after that, and she does not understand why she should be the centre of attention. Albertina refuses to make eye contact, and mumbles a few answers, but eventually her tears turn to anger. “There are a lot of girls who get married here at an early age, and no one cares. But you only come to see me.”
It’s not hard to see where she’s coming from. Why is she being singled out for attention? Why is she being made to feel guilty about her marriage to a man she loves? Especially when, as she explains, she is relieving her cash-strapped family of another mouth to feed. “It’s better to stay here. My husband can take care of me so my parents don’t have to. I’m being taken care of by someone who can afford to take care of me.”
Child marriage is endemic in Mozambique. It has the 10th highest rate of child marriage globally, with 48% of the female population under 18 affected. And in the context of these child brides, Albertina’s is a relatively positive story. The marriage has worked – so far, at least – and her basic needs are being met. But even for Albertina, the long-term consequences are deeply concerning; she has dropped out of school with no intention of returning, and as a result she is unlikely to ever hold a job. Medically, many girls who go through pregnancy before their bodies are fully developed suffer from severe medical complications such as fistulas, and are at increased risk of contracting HIV and sexually transmitted diseases.
Societally, the consequences are grave too: if half of Mozambican women are stuck at home without education or prospects for employment, the country is unlikely to seriously address gender inequality any time soon. Nonetheless, Albertina feels she made the best decision she could in the circumstances she found herself in, (Who are we to argue otherwise?), and is entitled to feel aggrieved at those who question her choices. The truth is, however, that she should never have had to make that kind of decision in the first place.
Albertina’s social worker, Maria Nanburete, does not disagree. “People were judging her. She didn’t like that attitude because she’s not the only one in this situation. But we have to continue the work, try to give advice to Albertina, to show her the good paths,” she said. But Nanburete adds that while Albertina’s decision to marry early may have made sense in her context, she should never have had to make these kinds of decisions in the first place.
Every year, more than 15 million girls under the age of 18 get married. 17% of them are in Africa. Mozambique isn’t even the worst-affected country on the continent; that dishonour belongs to Niger, where 76% of women are married under the age of 18. In fact, nine of the ten countries with the highest rate of child marriage in the world are in Africa. Recognising the problem, the AU is finally trying to do something about it. The special summit on Thursday and Friday this week will bring together ministers and first ladies from across the continent to strategise on how to end child marriage in Africa. The AU hopes to wrangle countries into firstly acknowledging that the problem exists, and secondly committing funding to tackle it. The idea is that the next generation of Africa’s girls must not be forced into sexual relationships, and be allowed to grow up and complete their education.
Unlike Albertina, Cidalia, from a village about half an hour’s drive away, is full of regret. She is less intimidated by the questions, perhaps because she has already been through more than her fair share of tough situations. Also 17, she has already experienced being beaten, abandoned and – in her own words – disgraced by an older man who had promised to marry her. Although not legally married, the widespread practise of child marriage meant that Cidalia thought it was normal to go and live with this older man (“He said he was 19, but he looked much older,” said Cidalia) in his village, even though she was just 15 at the time. After becoming pregnant, the husband-to-be ended the relationship, and Cidalia returned home.
“It was a bad thing, it disgraces my life. I was working, I had a job. Then I met him. Now I have a baby and I can’t do anything else. I’m the one to blame for the choice that I made,” she said. Her son, Euclas, is ten months old, and they are both being supported by her mother and step-father in their village of Indude.
Cidalia also dropped out of school, but she wants to go back. “I was excited to go and live with him, but things changed when he started to beat me up. Then it wasn’t fun. I regret it. My future is to go back to school and get a job.” Cidalia seems intent on getting her life back on track, and approached the police to demand maintenance from Euclas’ father. The police assigned her a social worker, and opened proceedings against him.
That there is any legal recourse for Cidalia, and social support, is thanks to a government-led campaign to reduce child marriage in Mozambique and support the girls affected. The campaign is being supported by Unicef, among other NGOs. Specific interventions include the establishment of community committees against child marriage, a proposed scheme to transfer cash to poor families to remove the economic incentive, and an awareness-raising campaign using local media and entertainment channels.
It’s too early to know if the campaign has made a real difference, but anecdotally its impact is obvious in the stories of some community leaders and parents discouraging children from getting formally married, or intervening to return child brides to their home villages.
“We know it’s not going to change immediately. But we work slowly with the community, and with time we will get people to change their minds and approaches,” said Pascoa Sumbana Ferrao, director of the Department of Children, Women and Social Action in Mozambique’s Inhambane province. It is her job, ultimately, to protect young women like Cidalia and Albertina.
Pascao says that there is no single reason why child marriage is so prevalent in Mozambique. Partly, it’s cultural. Many communities use physical appearance rather than age as a measure of adulthood, so when girls grow breasts and start their periods they are treated as women – even though thei bodies are not fully developed, and usually not ready to have children. It is also economic. Children are expensive. They need to be fed and clothed and sent to school. If a girl can be married off young, that might allow parents to better provide for the rest of the family. And underpinning everything, of course, is a basic lack of awareness in families and communities about the damage caused by child marriage and early pregnancy. Not only is the child’s health and education likely to suffer, but future generations are also vulnerable: the risk of child mortality is 40% higher for children born to mothers under the age of 20.
These fears are far from Lucia’s mind, however. Lucia is 15, and eight months pregnant, and she cannot wait for her child to arrive. Lucia does not look like a women. She dresses up to be interviewed, but her choice of clothes reveals her youth. There’s a cartoon giraffe with purple sunglasses emblazoned on the front of her white vest. She is happy to answer questions, although her responses are monosyllabic – standard teenage responses, anywhere in the world.
When he’s away, do you miss him? “No.”
Lucia’s is a typical story, with a twist. A year ago, her partner Velasco’s aunt decided it was time for the 20-year-old man to find a wife, and invited him to her village, Guibombo, to take his pick from four young girls. None were older than 16. He chose Lucia. Although initially reluctant about the union, she bowed to family pressure. Her early pregnancy forced her to drop out of school. “My friends look at me differently now,” she said.
The twist is that her parents have forbidden the couple to get legally married until Lucia is 18, aware that child marriage is now frowned upon by the authorities – another indication that the campaign to end child marriage is working, at least in part. Although she and Velasco live together, this gives the parents some measure of control, and ensures that Lucia stays under their roof, and their protection, for a little longer. It is a small victory, perhaps, but, for the assembled ministers and first ladies at the AU summit in Lusaka, proof that progress is possible. DM