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African Union Pledges a Stop to Child Marriage

In this picture taken July 18, 2012, Zali Idy, 12, poses in her bedroom in the remote village of Hawkantaki, Niger. Zali was married in 2011.

Mozambique has one of the world’s highest rates of child marriage - driven by strong social and cultural traditions, despite the practice being illegal. Early marriage compromises girls’ right to education and can have a devastating impact on their health. The African Union has pledged to stop all child marriages within a generation.

In a sandy suburb of Pemba in northern Mozambique, 16-year-old Rachel bounces her daughter on her knee before handing the fidgety toddler to her sister.

Rachel - who did not want to reveal her real name and asked not to be recorded - describes how at 14, she got pregnant.

“My big sister insisted that I stay in school,” she said. “There are many here who have babies at a young age but normally, they leave school to get married and continue to have children every year after that. Some think marriage is a guarantee of security,” she said.

It’s a familiar narrative in Mozambique where 52% of girls marry before they are 18.

Ceremonies with dancing and music mark the beginning of the mostly secretive initiation rites season in Pemba. Girls are removed from school when they have their first menstruation, sometimes before, and are kept away for days, weeks, or even months to undergo initiation by the “matronas”, female community elders.

It is so accepted in this northern province that the school calendar has been adapted to accommodate the practice.

Initiation rites prepare girls for married life in Mozambique with training in submissiveness, domestic duties, the art of seduction and may include female genital mutilation in the belief that it will increase male sexual pleasure.

After going through initiation, girls are considered ready for marriage.

Françoise Moudouthe, Africa Regional Officer for Girls Not Brides, said child marriage often forces girls to drop out of school and to have children before their bodies are mature enough.

“Most of them are expected to enter into sexual intercourse very early, before her body is ready. She’s also very often expected to have children to prove her value as a wife and the consequences of early pregnancy for a girl, especially the youngest child bride, is really dramatic. Girls, who are married before age 15, are five times more likely to die or be injured in childbirth than girls over age 19,” said Moudouthe.

Sixty percent of all fistula cases, caused by prolonged obstructed labor leaving a woman incontinent, occur in girls under 18.

Nyaradzayi Gumbonzvanda, the African Union Goodwill Ambassador for the campaign to end child marriage in Africa, said the practice is a violation of the fundamental rights of girls. She believes that if governments, women and youth movements, faith and traditional leaders pull together, it can be ended within a generation.

“Getting into early marriage should not be an option out of poverty. It is important that our girls have access to education, not only primary education but are able to transition into secondary, tertiary education and get jobs or are involved in some entrepreneurship… We need to also address some of the very strong patriarchal attitudes where girls are seen as wives and not citizens. Girls are not getting married to boys, girls are getting married to adult men who are supposed to be responsible,” said Gumbonzvanda.

Gumbonzvanda argued that current social traditions in Mozambique to initiate girls into womanhood should not be banned, but rather adapted with more positive age-appropriate messages to equip girls with vital skills so they do not have to depend solely on marriage.

Slowly, attitudes are changing in Pemba as men and women are progressively exposed to information through media and better education.

Child-to-child radio programs debate issues pertinent to young people, giving them a stronger voice in the community. National campaigns raising health awareness are helping parents learn about the detrimental impact of early marriage.

Rachel’s parents are stalling her completion of the initiation rites in the belief it might help her stay in school.

“I really like to study and when I finish, I want a job, I want to be financially independent,” Rachel said.

For Rachel and her sisters living in a modest concrete house in Pemba, they aspire to have more than what they have grown up with - whether it is the latest fashion, or a smartphone, or a career that gives them freedom and independence.

Gillian Parker traveled to Mozambique with the International Reporting Project.