When Maria Malomalo was pregnant with her third child, she noticed that she was often the oldest woman going to her local clinic for ante-natal checks. She was only 30. Most of those around her were 15, 16 or 17 years old, which made her start to question why there were so many cases of adolescent pregnancies in her community. She soon discovered this was the case across Angola.
Although many of them were married early, or had become pregnant without their consent, these adolescent girls were still determined to take control of their futures. After listening to their stories and talking with her fellow mothers-to-be, Maria was inspired to make a difference in her community.
In 2017, she set up a community-based charity to better understand why there were such high cases of adolescent pregnancies and child marriages in Angolan communities.
She called her charity Mwana Pwo, which means “girl child” in Chokwe. It is based in Lunda Sul province, in the city of Saurimo. This is a densely populated area with one of the highest incidences of adolescent pregnancies and child marriage in the country.
“The impact of poverty on child marriage is undeniable, but sometimes you also have to ask ‘why don’t they sell their sons? So it’s the whole issue around gender inequality and looking at women as ‘things,’ not as people.”
Saurimo is the perfect location for Mwana Pwo’s information hub – a shipping container-turned-mobile learning centre. Cheaper than securing a plot of land and a permanent building, the centre – which is run by young volunteers for girls to access information around sexual and reproductive health and rights – was also a conscious decision taken by Mwana Pwo to protect the environment.
“We saw many abandoned shipping containers and asked ourselves, ‘How best can we serve our community, and at the same time protect our environment?”
The idea to use shipping containers also came from the need to ensure that girls can get information and support in spaces that are easily accessible for them.
At the hub, girls can learn new skills and enrol on courses in business, entrepreneurship and I.T. They can also feature as guests on Mwana Pwo’s weekly radio programme Txicumbi, which is the Chokwe word for the process that prepares girls for menstruation, and the transition from girlhood to womanhood.
The girls can use this safe space to discuss a variety of topics and issues prevalent in their communities.
“We wanted to invest more in young people so that they can talk to other young people, facilitate the conversations and lead the changes they want to see.”
It hasn’t always been easy for Maria and her team to approach the families and communities they want to work with. As in many places across the world, longstanding practices often go unquestioned because they have been part of a community’s life and identity for so long.
“We’ve had challenges in terms of religious leaders suspecting that we’re here to change the culture and dictate how they should live and behave. We’ve also had families turn their children away from us in fear that they will learn things like how to use condoms.”
Angola’s lack of research-led data on the prevalence of child marriage and adolescent pregnancy has also made Mwana Pwo’s work more difficult. Raising awareness and engaging communities in a discussion about the impacts on girls’ lives is difficult without evidence-based communication.
Thanks to government support, the Mwana Pwo team has been able to work with communities at a deeper level, sharing with families information on the harmful impacts of child marriage for girls. For the leadership programme, girls had a safe space to share their personal stories and map out community-based approaches to address child marriage in a local boarding school. The government provided access to the school at a lower cost.
"We teach about women’s rights, what feminism means and the stigmas around it, from an objective point of view. We also teach them about how to work together and the importance of realising their sexual and reproductive rights, and over the next few months when they’re still in contact with us – we make sure that they create community-based groups.”
Funded by the African Women’s Development and Communication Network FEMNET, two girls from the leadership programme represented Mwana Pwo at a Beijing +25 consultative forum in Ethiopia in 2019. At the forum, member states, civil society and stakeholder participants celebrated the significant progress made on gender equality and women’s empowerment in Africa, and agreed on concrete action to be taken to accelerate change.
The girls used the forum to raise awareness about the impact of child marriage on girls in Angola and ensure the country is included in any transformative actions. One such action included targeting governments with initiatives to promote girls’ rights at the community level.
“Girls play a central role in advocating for an end to child marriage. There is a need to build their agency so that they are better able to advocate for their rights and demand action from duty bearers.”
Mwana Pwo continues to play a central role in the communities of Lunda Sul, advocating for girls’ rights and access to learning and empowerment. A lot more needs to be done to address child marriage and ensure girls can access their rights all across Angola, but organisations like Mwana Pwo are the kick-start needed for girls to realise their dreams.
In the time it has taken to read this article 57 girls under the age of 18 have been married
Each year, 12 million girls are married before the age of 18
That is 23 girls every minute
Nearly 1 every 2 seconds
Associação Mwana Pwo
Associação Mwana Pwo is an Angolan organisation founded in 2018 to inspire young women’s leadership in sexual and reproductive health through capacity building, leadership and human rights training. The organisation’s main interventions focus on the prevention of unintended pregnancy, contraceptive use, gender-based violence and menstrual health management. Mwana Pwo is a member of Girls Not Brides: The Global Partnership to End Child Marriage.