Mozambique’s national strategy on child marriage: a ray of hope for girls

Photo credit: The Wellbeing Foundation Africa

Carlota Domingos* has experienced more than her young age might suggest. At only sixteen, Carlota has already married, become pregnant, dropped out of school and divorced – all in the course of one year.

Carlota’s story is not unfamiliar. In Mozambique, where she is from, half of girls are married before the age of 18. The country has the 10th highest child marriage rates in the world, with devastating consequences on their wellbeing and future prospects.

It is the story of Carlota and that of thousands other girls that led us to create Girls Not Brides Mozambique, a civil society partnership committed to ending child marriage and supporting married girls in the country. Luckily for girls, change is underway.

As child marriage became an issue of global importance in the last few years, momentum also grew in Mozambique. UNICEF and Mrs Graça Machel launched a national campaign on child marriage and statistics showed a practice on the decline: in 2008, 52% of girls were married before the age of 18. In 2011, that figure had dropped to 48%.  More communities grew to understand the effects of child marriage and its impact, and traditional and religious leaders took it to heart to rid their villages of child marriage, mobilising families, teachers and students and steadily changing mentalities.

But perhaps most promising is the recent adoption of Mozambique’s National Strategy to Prevent and Combat Child Marriage, an ambitious across-the-board plan to prevent and combat child marriage by 2019. Led by the Ministry of Gender, Children and Social Affairs, the national strategy is the product of months of sustained collaboration between multiple ministries, international agencies, donors, and civil society organisations.

As the leading partnership working on child marriage in the country, Girls Not Brides Mozambique helped anchor the content of the strategy in grassroots realities. Girls and communities were not left out of the equation: consultations with girls, children, community leaders, and traditional groups, including civil society and faith-based organisations, were held in several high-prevalence provinces in the north and the south. We made sure their feedback was taken on board.

The result is a comprehensive document that sees child marriage for what it is: a complex, multi-faceted problem which requires tailored, coordinated solutions. What works to prevent child marriage in the north, where traditional practices prevail, will be different from the south, where adolescent pregnancy remains one of the main reasons why girls are married at a young age. 

The strategy’s eight pillars cover much ground, including education, awareness campaigns, access to family planning and sexual and reproductive health services, improved laws and policies, as well as research and monitoring. This lays a solid foundation to bring about change on a larger scale, in collaboration with a range of partners.

However, we would be mistaken to celebrate too soon. No real change comes from a piece of paper alone and the coming months will determine the fate of the national strategy, be it gathering dust on a shelf somewhere, or transforming girls’ lives across the country.

In particular, strong coordination of all stakeholders – from government ministries and donors, to civil society and communities – will be critical to success. A key aspect of this will be mapping out who is already doing what, and what their role in implementing the strategy should be. We believe the government is well-positioned to lead this effort. It has shown great leadership so far and should continue to do so, as only strong political will can ensure that all ministries and government at all levels play their part in ending child marriage.

None of this can happen, however, without a clearly costed action plan and sustainable funding to see it through. This means allocating the necessary funds from the budget to the national strategy, as well as ensuring that civil society organisations have access to the funding they need to carry out their work.

Donors and international agencies can lend financial and technical support, for instance as part of the UNFPA – UNICEF Global Programme to Acceleration Action to End Child Marriage which will be rolled out in Mozambique in the coming years.

Finally, our efforts can only bear fruit by involving the girls, youth and communities whose lives are the heart of the national strategy and are directly affected by child marriage. They, too, must have a say in how we implement and measure success.

The adoption of the national strategy remains a cause for celebration, and should inspire our African neighbours to do the same. Yet we know all too well that this is the beginning of a long journey. Mozambique now has one of the most ambitious strategies to end child marriage in the region. And if we work together, it might just come true.

* Al Jazeera, Child marriage in Mozambique: desperate to escape”, 1 February 2016. Accessed April 2016: http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2016/01/child-marriage-mozambique-desperate-escape-160124100855775.html