Ending child marriage in Mozambique: education is a powerful weapon

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At age 17, Admira was married, pregnant and facing a future filled with uncertainty.

“I met my husband in the 12th grade,” she says. “At the beginning of last year, I discovered that I was pregnant. I had no idea how to protect myself [against pregnancy]…I was scared.”

When Admira and her partner told their parents about the pregnancy, they decided that marriage was the couple’s only option, and her soon-to-be husband’s family agreed to pay both a dowry and a penalty fee because of the pregnancy.

“His family paid a sum and then we married,” says Admira, adding that she had to give up her dream of finishing high school.

two women and bay

Admira [left] with her stepmother and daughter

Admira is just one of millions of girls in Mozambique who become child brides – a reality which often forces girls to drop out of school and start families long before they are physically or psychologically ready.

In fact, Mozambique ranks 7th on the list of countries with the highest number of child marriages –  nearly 50% of all girls are married before age 18.

“I’m both happy and sad about my life,” says Admira. “Sad because I got pregnant and had to quit my studies. Happy because I like being a mother.”

Working to change the story  ­­

For Octavia, a program manager at Plan International Mozambique, Admira’s story hits extremely close to home.

“I know exactly what these girls are going through,” she says. “I became pregnant myself when I was 15 years old. My family kicked me out and forced me to marry my boyfriend. I was treated like a slave by my in-laws, it was awful.”

“All of this because I had not received any sex education – I didn’t know anything about periods or how children are conceived and I got pregnant the first time we had sex.”

Today, Octavia is an energetic mother of three who escaped an abusive  marriage  and is now using her experience to inspire change and educate others.

“I tell all the girls I meet, who are married or pregnant – there is hope. I am living proof that you can succeed anyway. I left my husband and have over the years acquired a university education and a new family.”

Creating better opportunities

girls in classroom

Only 1 in 10 girls in Mozambique finish high school, and as the leader of Plan International’s Better Opportunities for Girls project, Octavia is working with youth groups to reduce child marriage by spreading awareness and increasing access to education in her community

According to Girls Not Brides, girls with no education are 3x as likely to marry by age 18 as those with a secondary or higher education. In other words: the longer a girl stays in school, the less likely she is to become a child bride.

In addition, education can pave the way for a new generation of boys and girls who no longer accept the status quo of child marriage, early pregnancy and harmful gender stereotypes.

“There is a huge difference in how we raise boys and girls in this country. When our daughters reach puberty, the worst thing that they can do is to have sex before marriage. But when our sons reach 14, we encourage them to start having sexual relations to show that they are real men. It is so wrong!” says Octavia.

Baptista, 14, is one of the many youth participating in the project and boys like him are learning more about gender equality, empowerment and challenging traditional norms.

“I have learnt about human rights and the power relations between women and men. I think that girls and boys are equal,” he says, adding that he now knows to help his mother out with household chores that are typically considered “female only”.

And girls like Malaivia, 12, are learning to stand up for their rights and to dream of a future where they can be anything they want to be.

“I want to become a traffic policewoman and do traffic spot-checks on the highway,” she says, with a smile.

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Safe spaces to live, learn and thrive

Sofia in her dorm room

Along with our youth group programming, Plan International is also working to help more girls exercise their rights to education by building boarding schools to help girls at risk of dropping out.

Many of the girls at the boarding school have faced various challenges to staying in school, such as long walking distances to school, child marriage, gender inequality, violence or poverty. However, with a scholarship, they are able to pay their school fees and finish their studies in a safe environment.

Sofia, 15, is one youth who almost dropped out of primary school because the journey to her nearest school was long and dangerous.

“I was so pleased when I received my scholarship,” she says. “Most of my friends have dropped out of school. Some of them because they became pregnant and got married others because their parents are poor.”

Through her school, Sofia is learning that she has the power and agency to decide her own future and she wants to postpone the idea of marriage and children until she’s ready.

“I want to marry when I’m 30 years old. My parents support my education and listen to me,” she says. “My dream is to become a doctor.”

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Ending child marriage

Around the world, ‘normal’ for too many girls is facing roadblocks that challenge their power, freedom and equality just as they enter womanhood. Child marriage is an extreme example of such a roadblock, and one that often forces girls to drop out of school and become mothers before their young minds and bodies are ready.

Plan International Canada is calling on Canadians like you to stand with girls around the world to Defy Normal and help end child marriage. Together, we can support girls in becoming empowered, confident women who decide their own futures.

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