Dispatch

From transactional sex to mentoring girls, a transformative journey for young woman

30 May 2017
Mentor Edma Bartolomeu João discusses prevention of early pregnancy with adolescent girls in the ‘safe space’ created by Rapariga Biz in Namutequeliua, a neighbourhood of Nampula city in Mozambique. © UNFPA Mozambique / Helene Christensen

QUELIMANE, Zambezia, Mozambique – “I once engaged in transactional sex without using contraceptives to be able to afford attending school. Now I use my own story to demonstrate (to other girls) that change is possible.”

Amelia*, 22, has become a Rapariga Biz mentor for other girls in Quelimane. As a result of this UNFPA-supported intervention, she is able to use the monthly subsidy she receives as a mentor to cover her school fees.

It has given her renewed hope – for herself and for other girls.

I hope to make the girls see that they can start making different choices in their lives, just like I did.

“I hope to make the girls see that they can start making different choices in their lives, just like I did,” she says.

Mentors reach out to at-risk girls

In the year since the intervention was launched, 783 mentors like Amelia have been trained.

Rapariga Biz is the first joint UN programme on sexual and reproductive health and rights for adolescent girls in Mozambique. It is led by the Government with technical assistance from UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund (lead agency), together with UNESCO, UNICEF and UN WOMEN. The funding has been provided by Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA).

The programme, started in May 2016, aims to reach one million girls and young women aged 10-24 years by 2020. In its first year of implementation in the targeted provinces of Nampula and Zambezia, it has reached more than 23,000 girls and young women.

Understanding the risks of falling pregnant

Edma Bartolomeu João, 21, is another young woman who has chosen to become a mentor to younger girls.

To empower the most vulnerable adolescent girls in my community to claim their rights and trust themselves is at the heart of my work as a mentor. Many girls are vulnerable to violence, early pregnancy and marriage when still children, which compromises their education and future,” says Edma.

Each week, she leads a session with about 30 adolescent girls aged 10 to 15 years at a ‘safe space’ in Namutequeliua, a neighbourhood of Nampula City in northern Mozambique.

Mentor Edma came to my home after a session to ensure I understood the risks and consequences of falling pregnant. It made me change my risky sexual behaviours.

Mamo Daudo, 15, refers to Edma as her sister, advisor and role model.

“Mentor Edma came to my home after a session to ensure I understood the risks and consequences of falling pregnant. It made me change my risky sexual behaviours,” she says.

She dreams of being a mentor for others like Edma and at her own initiative, is now hosting mentorship sessions in her home for younger girls.

Creating safe emotional spaces

The safe space is a location within the community that has been identified as safe for adolescent girls to gather together. Here, Edma also ensures a safe emotional space.

Some adolescent girls leave school to marry for money in order to sustain their livelihoods. Some are engaging in unsafe sexual behaviours, unaware of the risks and their rights.

In her sessions with the girls she discusses life skills and their fundamental human rights, including the right to live free from violence and child marriage. She teaches them about sexual and reproductive health, and the consequences of early pregnancy and how to prevent it. She also helps to build a sense of solidarity among the girls.

Yet her role as a mentor is not without challenges. “Some adolescent girls leave school to marry for money in order to sustain their livelihoods. Some are engaging in unsafe sexual behaviours, unaware of the risks and their rights,” she says.

Safe spaces of sisterhood

In Mozambique, about 46 per cent of girls aged between 15 and 19 years are pregnant or already mothers, according to the 2015 IMASIDA Survey by the Ministry of Health. Furthermore, 48 per cent of girls were married before they reached 18 years – in Zambezia, 47 per cent and in Nampula, 62 per cent (DHS 2011).

Typically, girls who experience child marriage and early pregnancy are forced to drop out of school, and are at risk of complications such as obstetric fistula, or even death from pregnancy or birth-related causes.

Rapariga Biz intends to support the girls to become empowered, educated and healthy – and with the ability and opportunity to make informed choices about their lives.

The programme aims to intervene.

“Rapariga Biz intends to support the girls to become empowered, educated and healthy – and with the ability and opportunity to make informed choices about their lives,” says UNFPA Representative for Mozambique, Bettina Maas.

The mentors are a core pillar of Rapariga Biz’s holistic approach, which includes girls and young women’s participation in the media, community and family mobilization, advocacy and mass media campaigns, community-based sexual and reproductive health service delivery for adolescents and youth, and economic empowerment.

Mentors lead change for girls

The efforts of Edma, Amelia and others involved in Rapariga Biz have yielded significant progress in the first year of the programme. Among 9,183 adolescent girls aged 15-19 years, there have been only 7 early pregnancies and 145 early marriages (0.7 per cent). This is a promising indication that an holistic approach can help reverse the situation of girls and young women in Mozambique.

Through Rapariga Biz, the mentors are also becoming leaders and change agents in their communities, contributing towards gender equity. They are at the forefront, leading change, and growing skills in mentorship, leadership, facilitation, social responsibility and communication.

In 2017, UNFPA and partners are to train another 2000 mentors. As a result, more girls’ lives will change for the better.

“It motivates me to make a difference in the lives of the adolescent girls in my community,” says Amelia of the programme.

Edma agrees. “I have learned and grown a lot from being a mentor. It prepares me well for realizing my dream of becoming a professor,” she says.

By Helene Christensen

* Not her real name.