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African Union Promises to End Child Marriage

Child bride Sarey Amadou, 14, in her bedroom in Hawkantaki, Niger in 2012. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay)

Child bride Sarey Amadou, 14, in her bedroom in Hawkantaki, Niger in 2012. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay)

The African Union has sworn to stop all child marriages within a generation. The African nation of Mozambique has one of the highest rates of child marriage in the world. Strong social and cultural traditions support the practice, although it is illegal. Early marriage compromises the right of girls to an education. It can also have a shocking effect on their health.

Near the town of Pemba, in northern Mozambique, 16-year-old Rachel plays with her daughter. Rachel is not the girl’s real name. The young mother did not want it to be identified. She also asked not to be recorded.

Rachel got pregnant when she was 14 years old.

She told VOA, “My big sister warned me to stay in school. There are many here who have babies at a young age but normally, they leave school to get married and continue to have children every year after that. Some think marriage is a guarantee of security.”

Rachel’s story is not unusual in Mozambique, where 52% of girls marry before they are 18.

Ceremonies with dancing and music mark the beginning of the mostly secretive initiation rites season in Pemba. Girls are removed from school when they have their first menstruation – the bleeding that is part of a woman’s monthly period. The girls spend days, weeks, or even months being taught traditions by the “matronas,” female community leaders.

The local school calendar is organized in a way to support the custom.

The matronas teach the traditions to prepare girls for married life in Mozambique. They train them to be obedient to men. They teach them about cooking and other duties related to home and family. The matronas also train the girls in how to interest a man sexually. The initiation rites may also include removing part of the girls’ female genital organs. This is done in the belief that it will increase male sexual pleasure.

Girls are considered ready for marriage once they have completed the initiation activities.

Girls Not Brides is an organization working to end child marriage. Françoise Moudouthe is the group’s Africa Regional Officer. She says child marriage often forces girls to leave school. She says the girls also often have babies before their bodies have grown enough to support healthy reproduction.

“Most of them are expected to enter into sexual intercourse very early, before her body is ready. She’s also very often expected to have children to prove her value as a wife and the consequences of early pregnancy for a girl, especially the youngest child bride, is really dramatic. Girls, who are married before age 15, are five times more likely to die or be injured in childbirth than girls over age 19.”

One of the dangers is a fistula. A fistula is a hole that develops between two organs. This can happen during a prolonged labor, where the baby’s head is in the birth canal for a long time. Fistulas can cause leakage of body waste, an inability to have sex or children, and more dangerous health problems.

Nyaradzayi Gumbonzvanda is the African Union Goodwill Ambassador for Ending Child Marriage. She says child marriage is a violation of the fundamental rights of girls. She believes that child marriage can be ended within a generation if governments, women and youth movements work together with religious and traditional leaders.

“Getting into early marriage should not be an option out of poverty. It is important that our girls have access to education, not only primary education but are able to transition into secondary, tertiary education and get jobs or are involved in some entrepreneurship…we need to also address some of the very strong patriarchal attitudes where girls are seen as wives and not citizens. Girls are not getting married to boys, girls are getting married to adult men who are supposed to be responsible.”

Ms. Gumbonzvanda says current social traditions in Mozambique to prepare girls for womanhood should be changed, not banned. She says training should involve skills that will help girls avoid dependence on marriage alone.

Slowly, attitudes are changing in Pemba. Education has improved and increased media availability is expanding the flow of information.

Child-to-child radio programs debate issues affecting young people. The programs give young people greater influence in the community. National health campaigns are helping parents learn about the possible harms of early marriage.

Rachel’s parents are delaying her completion of the initiation activities so that she can stay in school.

I’m Caty Weaver.

*Gilliam Parker provided this report from Pemba, Mozambique. Caty Weaver wrote the VOA Learning English version. George Grow was the editor.


Words in This Story

practice - n. something that is done often or regularly

sworn - v. to promise very strongly and sincerely to do or not do something

generation – n. the average length of time between the birth of parents and the birth of their children

initiation - n. the process of being formally accepted as a member of a group or organization

attitude - n. the way you think and feel about someone or something

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