Child mar­riages spike in Mozam­bique

Lesotho Times - - Africa -

NA­MAACHA — Car­lota Domin­gos sits on a four-legged wooden stool in front of a one room mud house. The house clings to the side of a dry, rocky hill, which sep­a­rates Mozam­bique and the land­locked king­dom of Swazi­land.

Six­teen-year-old Domin­gos is eight months preg­nant and di­vorced. When her hus­band lost his job and she be­came preg­nant, his fam­ily pushed her out of their home, say­ing they could not af­ford to care for her any longer.

“I did not see this com­ing. Peo­ple have stopped talk­ing to me. I have even lost my friends,” Domin­gos told Al Jazeera in a clear soft voice, her eyes cast down at her feet.

In this bor­der town of Na­maacha and across this Por­tuguese-speak­ing south­ern African coun­try of some 25 mil­lion peo­ple the prac­tice of child mar­riage is not un­com­mon.

Ac­cord­ing to the United Na­tion’s Chil­dren Education Fund (Unicef), nearly one in two women aged be­tween 20 and 24 were mar­ried or in a union be­fore they were 18 years old.

The coun­try has the tenth high­est rate of child mar­riage in the world. In Mozam­bique, the le­gal age of mar­riage is 18, but where par­ents or guardians have given con­sent, the age is 16.

School dropouts Domin­gos mar­ried at the age of 15 and be­came preg­nant be­fore she turned 16.

Now back at her fam­ily home, Domin­gos has dropped out of school be­cause her hus­band, who was 17 when they were mar­ried, aban­doned her.

“Now I’m al­most nine months preg­nant. I can barely walk, let alone go to work or at­tend classes in school. I de­pend on my fam­ily. They have ac­cepted me back into the fam­ily,” she said.

At the town’s pri­mary school teach­ers have be­come ac­cus­tomed to see­ing their most promis­ing fe­male stu­dents drop out each term due to early un­planned preg­nan­cies or be­cause they get mar­ried.

“Ev­ery term, at least five stu­dents drop out be­cause of this. The girls are get­ting mar­ried or fall­ing preg­nant be­cause they are try­ing to es­cape from dif­fi­cult con­di­tions at home. When they have no food or clothes to wear it is easy for men to tell them lies and abuse them,” Ranita David Murasse, the di­rec­tor of EPCDE pri­mary school, told Al Jazeera.

The school has 253 stu­dents and less than half are fe­male. In the lower grades, there are more girls than boys; from sixth grade, there are more boys than girls.

“We have fewer girls than boys be­cause of preg­nan­cies and mar- riage. Par­ents can’t af­ford to buy their chil­dren books or sandals, and men take ad­van­tage of this sad eco­nomic sit­u­a­tion. [For] al­most all the girls who get preg­nant, the men [who im­preg­nate them] are older,” Murasse added.

Teach­ers at the lo­cal school feel they are fight­ing a los­ing bat­tle.

“We live in a bor­der town where men with money pass through. They of­fer our girls who come from poor fam­i­lies gifts and money. Th­ese men carry dis­eases and health prob­lems. Our sit­u­a­tion is crit­i­cal,” Cristina Sevene, a teacher at the pri­mary school, said, her voice filled with anger.

Threat­ened lives Low lev­els of education and a lack of re­pro­duc­tive health in­for­ma­tion leaves the young girls at an in­creased risk of con­tract­ing sex­u­ally trans­mit­ted dis­eases.

Thirty min­utes’ drive from the town to­wards the cap­i­tal Ma­puto and a stone-throw from the high- way con­nect­ing Mozam­bique and Swazi­land lies a small vil­lage of no more than four huts.

The two fam­i­lies that live in the vil­lage grind their ex­is­tence from the nearby windswept fields.

They keep a cou­ple of goats and a hand­ful of chick­ens to sup­ple­ment the lit­tle they eke out from the fields.

The fam­i­lies said they could barely put food on the ta­ble, let alone send their chil­dren to school. This is a scene re­peated across ru­ral Mozam­bique.

The young girls and the pover­tys­tricken fam­i­lies are at the mercy of men with cash.

At­tend­ing to a young boy on the side of the fam­ily field is 24-yearold Re­becca Salo­mao. She dropped out of school when she was 15, af­ter she ran off with her then-boyfriend.

Less than two years ago, af­ter she had had her son, she found out that she had con­tracted HIV through her for­mer boyfriend. Luck­ily for her, she was di­ag­nosed with the vi­ral dis­ease af­ter a lo­cal char­ity con­ducted a blood test on her.

“My mother aban­doned me when I was a year old. She couldn’t look af­ter me; my grand­mother raised me,” Salo­mao told Al Jazeera.

“We had noth­ing. My for­mer boyfriend, who was Hiv-pos­i­tive, did not tell me about his HIV sta­tus. That is how I got in­fected with it. He has now left me and my son,” she said.

Help­ing vul­ner­a­ble girls Mozam­bique, with one of the fastest grow­ing economies on the con­ti­nent, has re­alised the scale of the prob­lem and is push­ing to re­verse the trend.

Ed­u­cat­ing the masses about the ben­e­fits of keep­ing girls in school and not mar­ry­ing them off is the so­lu­tion, says the govern­ment.

“We are re­view­ing our laws and are also cre­at­ing girls clubs where they can get help con­fi­den­tially,” Jorge Fer­rao, the education min­is­ter, told Al Jazeera.

“When a stu­dent gets preg­nant, she is forced to aban­don school. To re­duce the phe­nom­e­non, we must seek prac­ti­cal ways to re­duce it. With a more lit­er­ate so­ci­ety, we will re­duce the phe­nom­e­non,” Fer­rao said.

The govern­ment’s ef­forts might have come a lit­tle too late for Domin­gos, the preg­nant 16-year-old, but she hopes to re­turn to school once she gives birth.

“My dream — be­fore get­ting mar­ried and preg­nant — was to be­come a teacher. That is still my dream. And when I de­liver, I hope to go back to school,” she said.

— Al Jazeera


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