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MAPUTO, Mozambique—“The new law against child marriage is a huge milestone for community leaders. I am disseminating the law in my community and bringing more awareness on the consequences of child marriage,” said Gonçalves Bernardo, a community leader from Manica province, who received training under the Spotlight Initiative.

In December 2019, the Mozambican Parliament approved its first law criminalizing unions with minors (under 18 years old). This was the culmination of years of efforts by the government, civil society and rights-based organizations, due to their concern that almost half of girls in Mozambique marry before 18.

The new law against child marriage is a huge milestone for community leaders. I am disseminating the law in my community.

Despite this legal milestone, there is fear that the restrictions imposed by COVID-19 may result in an increase in child marriage in Mozambique, as in other countries. 

To mitigate this risk, the Spotlight Initiative is working collaboratively with public institutions, civil society and a network of around 300 community leaders to educate communities about the harmful effects of child marriage, and to teach them about the country’s recently approved law, which criminalizes it.

Role of community leaders

Armando Saíde Júnior, a community leader from Nampula province and who was trained under the Spotlight Initiative, said, “Our work as community leaders [in preventing child marriage] used to be hard. But now we have the new law, and we must implement it.” 

As a community leader from Nampula province, Amade Saíde received training under the Spotlight Initiative to prevent and report cases of child marriage in his community. © UN Mozambique/Ricardo Franco

Leaders like Mr. Bernardo and Mr. Júnior work closely with communities and civil society organizations, raising awareness on the consequences of child marriage and referring cases to government authorities from the health, social welfare, law enforcement and justice sectors, which have also been trained to enforce the new law. Joint work between them led to 15 girls being removed from child marriages by the end of 2020. 

In addition, an estimated 3 million people have already been educated about the new law, along with critical information on gender-based violence and COVID-19 prevention under the Spotlight Initiative.

“Now, the big challenge is to enforce this law on the ground, working with our partners, the government, civil society and the communities,” said Antonio-Sánchez Benedito Gaspar, the European Union Ambassador in Mozambique. 

Educating women and girls on the harmful effects of child marriage in a community in Gaza. © UNFPA Mozambique/Mbuto Machili

Child marriage, violence and health risks

Child marriage can have a devastating impact on a girl’s life, from exposing her to violence and health risks to compromising her future and dreams. According to global UNFPA data, child marriage is often followed by pregnancy, even when a girl is not yet physically or mentally ready. 

Mozambique is no exception, according to the 2017 Population Census, with 56 per cent of 17-year-old married girls already having children. In developing countries, complications from pregnancy and childbirth are the leading cause of death among adolescent girls aged 15 to 19. Furthermore, it is known that marrying before the age of 18 increases the chance of intimate partner violence by 22 per cent.

Involving community leaders is key

A recent UN study on the Impact of COVID-19 on Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment in East and Southern Africa points to an increase of gender-based violence, teenage pregancies and child marriage across the region. 

School closures, economic pressure and limited access to sexual and reproductive health services are seen as some of the main drivers of these problems, with far-reaching consequences for women and girls.

In discussion with a family about the ills of child marriage, in Gaza Province, Mozambique. © UNFPA Mozambique/Mbuto Machili

The same study states that COVID-19 may have disrupted current and planned efforts to end child marriage, and UNFPA estimates that these factors may lead to a global increase of 13 million child marriages between 2020 and 2030.

What keeps me going is to help prevent girls from getting pregnant or married because they are poor. I don’t want this to happen.

“What keeps me going is to help prevent girls from getting pregnant or married because they are poor. I don’t want this to happen. I really don’t,” said Augusto Cabide, a community leader from Nampula Province.

Curbing child marriage amidst the COVID-19 pandemic will take decisive action, further investment, and active engagement from local leaders with their communities. 

As Isaura Nyusi, Mozambique’s First Lady said, “Traditional leaders are the guardians of social norms and allies in ending gender-based violence and child marriage.”

Through the Spotlight Initiative, the Government of Mozambique, the European Union and the United Nations will continue working hand in hand with civil society and community leaders to end this devastating practice.

This article was first published by Spotlight Initiative.