GORONGOSA NATIONAL PARK, MOZAMBIQUE - Girls take turns to read aloud under a tree in rural Mozambique, part of a project by Gorongosa National Park to educate them and keep them out of child marriage.
The club meetings operate in 50 schools on the edge of the park, whose managers believe helping communities is key to conservation. Many girls in the southern African nation are particularly vulnerable, marrying and giving birth in their teens.
"We try to make a safe place for them to be able to speak up," said Larissa Sousa, manager of the program for girls who also learn about health and family planning and take trips to see Gorongosa's wildlife. About 2,000 girls are participating.
It could take a generation to persuade communities to let girls stay longer in school rather than drop out, marry and give birth in line with old customs, Sousa said. The girls' clubs, which started two years ago, are gaining some acceptance after talks with local leaders and others, she said.
The emphasis on girls is part of a wider campaign to restore Gorongosa, led by a joint venture between a non-profit group founded by American philanthropist Greg Carr and the Mozambican government.
Much of Gorongosa's wildlife was wiped out during the nearly two-decade civil war that ended in 1992. The park is in an opposition area in central Mozambique, where political tensions led to sporadic clashes in the last few years.
Child marriage around the world has declined in past decades but progress has been slow, according to the U.N. children's agency. Mozambique has one of the highest rates of child marriage in the world, UNICEF says.
Mozambican parents who give girls away in marriage benefit from a payment made by the bridegroom's family, and it also "removes a mouth to feed — an important consideration for families living below or only slightly above the poverty line," UNICEF said.
One aim of the Gorongosa clubs is to help the girls understand that, once armed with an education, they can seek the same kinds of opportunities as the boys. Some boys have been allowed to join in the club's activities.
The legal age of marriage in the southern African country is 18, though it can be 16 if parents give consent. Girls and young women are vulnerable to HIV infection, and many women are illiterate.
"Children shouldn't be having children. It's dangerous," Carr said. "When women are educated, all of society benefits."