How a USAID program helped three girls escape early marriage.
Desperate over the financial difficulties faced by her family,14 year-old Fatima was ready to compromise her future and get married. Fatima is from a farming village in Mozambique’s Sofala Province. Her father was ill and unable to work and her mother was in the last stage of pregnancy. Fortunately, Fatima’s mother heard of her daughter’s plan and took action. She sought help from the local primary prevention mentor from the Mwanasana (“Healthy Child”) project, a USAID-supported activity designed to protect girls from early marriage.
This project is implemented by ComuSanas, a Sofala-based NGO. It protects at-risk children by supporting families and engaging communities. It also works to improve coordination between Mozambique’s overburdened health and social protection institutions. Sofala Province has one of the highest HIV prevalence rates in Mozambique at 13.2% and the highest early sexual debut (< 15 years old) rate in Africa at 28%. Child marriage is strongly associated with high levels of HIV prevalence.
“With the intention of taking my family out of poverty, I innocently accepted the marriage proposal of a 29-year-old boy without my parent's concent”
Mana Dadi, Mwanasana’s local primary prevention mentor, met with Fatima and her family. Saying that early marriage crushes women’s futures, Mana urged Fatima to reconsider the idea of getting married to fix her problems. Seeing the family’s dire need, Mana was able to link the family to social services. Fatima’s house has now become a safe space in the community, where a Mwanasana primary prevention group brings together girls to discuss gender-based violence, HIV infection, and the perils of child marriage.
According to a 2011 survey, about half of Mozambican women marry before the age of 18. The high incidence of child marriage is often attributed to poverty: families and some girls themselves see marriage as a way to reduce family expenses and gain financial security. Also important are cultural beliefs and practices. Community leaders and institutions often create norms about the appropriate or desired age of marriage.
Dona Elina became a local leader in the Mwanasana project because of her personal experience. Her 14 year-old daughter Helena agreed to marry a 19 year-old boy from school. On hearing of the planned union, Dona Elina rejected the boy’s proposal, highlighting the dangers to her young daughter. Following up, Dona Elina reached out to the primary prevention mentor of the Mwanasana Project to explain what had happened. And from that day, she agreed to warn community members of the risks of early marriage.
At the far edge of Sofala province, in her village of Siluvo, Dona Elina is now known as “the guardian of girls.” In her discussions, Dona Elina compares the men who marry underage girls, often older men seeking a second or third wife, to monkeys, because monkeys invade family farms, eating unripe corn, undermining the efforts of the farmer. They destroy the dreams of the girls, who see themselves as future teachers, health care workers, or administrators. Her daughter Helena now attends high school, as do other girls who have escaped early marriages, thanks to Dona Elina.
“I am a conqueror. I am now part of the GBV and HIV prevention group and share my tory with other girls, advising them to resist any pressure into accepting early marriage.”
Another Mwanasana program participant is 12 year-old Ana. Ana is from the village of Nharuchonga and is an orphan living with her late mother’s sister. Her aunt wanted to marry her off to a 33 year-old man from a nearby town because of her great financial difficulties. When Ana realized that she might get married, she was scared and she sought the assistance of the Mwanasana mentor in her district. The mentor explained to Ana’s aunt the risks that premature marriage poses to her niece, including contracting HIV, since the suitor was polygamous. Ana’s aunt found it difficult to accept that early marriage was harmful, especially as the young man had made visits and provided her with food. But with Ana's insistent refusal and mentor’s constant lecturing, the aunt relented. As part of Mwanasana’s support for Ana, the aunt started participating in a local savings pool initiated by the project, allowing her to start a micro-business to earn additional income.
Mwanasana helped Ana, Helen, and Fatima avoid an early marriage and allowed them to continue schooling or pursue other opportunities. The girls also greatly increased their odds of avoiding contracting HIV, avoiding undergoing severe childbirth complications, and avoiding chronic malnutrition of their newborns, which are all health problems strongly associated with early marriage. This USAID activity not only empowers girls, it leads to stronger and healthier communities.
About this story
USAID Mwanasana/ Healthy Child is a five-year USAID funded project that builds the resilience of families caring for more than 70,000 HIV-affected children annually and enroll over 25,000 HIV+ children and adolescents in care and treatment in Sofala.
Photos by Alberto Afonso for USAID Mwanasana Activity