World (New Internationalist) – For many, the gentle rushing sound of the ocean lapping at the shore symbolizes freedom. It conjures images of exotic horizons, paradise islands and beach-hut bars.
For Flavia Fioretta, the ocean waves also mean freedom. They remind her of the trip she took with her mother to Tofo beach in Inhambane, Mozambique, when she was 14 years old, just before she was forced by her father to marry. She says it is the last time she remembers being truly free.
Flavia’s story is typical of many girls in Mozambique. She fell pregnant when she was 14. She felt too ashamed to carry on going to school as her pregnancy bump swelled. Two months before her son was born, she was married to his father and moved into his family home. Obeying local tradition, she assumed all household responsibility for her husband’s family: a housewife by 15.
Sitting in the shade of the palm trees in her village in the Jangamo district of Mozambique, Flavia traces shapes in the sand with her fingertips as she speaks.
‘I did not want to get married so young,’ she says. ‘But I had a baby. I am a girl; my father decided I must be married. That is what must happen.’
Flavia was dating a boy a couple of years older than her when she fell pregnant. This was the moment when she lost any semblance of control over the decisions that would shape her life.
She looks almost puzzled when asked if she was scared about what would happen to her when she discovered she was pregnant. She pauses for a moment before answering: ‘No. I was not scared. I accepted that I cannot change my father’s choice.’
The legal age of marriage in Mozambique is 18 (or 16 with parental consent) and this April marks one year since the government unveiled the National Strategy to Prevent and Combat Child Marriage. It outlines eight pillars key to ending child marriage by raising awareness, and improving girls’ access to education, sexual and reproductive health services, sex education and legal reforms. The strategy aims to reduce child marriage in rural areas like Jangamo where is it most common, by empowering teachers, religious leaders and community leaders to mobilize villages against child marriage.
Yet girls still have so little agency over their own futures that in some cases they are exchanged as young brides for medicine, a course of treatment from a doctor for a family member, or for farming equipment or animals. This exchange is so common in parts of northern Mozambique it has even been given a name. It is referred to as using the ‘local daughter’ to pay for the needs of a family.
It is a stifling life for these girls, and it can seem hopeless. To escape and begin a new life of independence seems like an impossible dream, but it can happen.
Albert de La Osa, a project worker at Maputo-based NGO HopeM’s Maixixe project, explains: ‘Adolescent pregnancy remains one of the main reasons girls are pressured to marry as young as 13. But we have seen increasing participation from leaders of the communities we work within to resist placing girls in unwanted early marriages. We welcome the announcement of last year’s government strategy to tackle child marriage, but now the real work begins to see more tangible results.’
A new path
Five years on, Flavia is living away from her husband, in the small community of Jago in Jangamo. She is working towards building her own small business, making and selling beaded jewellery to support her two children.
She is still married by law, but she now has her own life and hope for the future.
Leaving a forced marriage is a terrifying prospect. Mozambique’s traditional culture is one that does not freely accept divorce, and it is often seen as an insult to a family and a source of immense shame if daughters defy their fathers’ instructions. Violence, abuse and abandonment can be the heavy penance girls face for daring to choose their own path.
In spite of this, Flavia took that decision.
‘My father did not want me back after I said I would not live with my husband. But I knew I could not stay. It was not the life I want,’ she explains. ‘I don’t have a dream for the future. I just want to keep on smiling and I want my children to be happy.’
Flavia isn’t alone. A few miles away, in a neighbouring village in Maxixe, 18-year-old Angelica Macuamole is making a life of her own after her forced marriage when she was 15 caused deep divisions in her family.
‘I did not want to get married so young. But I had a baby. I am a girl; my father decided I must be married’
Like Flavia, Angelica fell pregnant to a boy she was dating. Her father insisted that she wed before the birth of her child, to avoid bringing shame on her family. When she was six months’ pregnant she suffered a miscarriage. Despite losing her baby, Angelica was still forced to marry. She says she had no choice and that her father would have kicked her out if she hadn’t gone through with the marriage.
‘I knew when I got pregnant I would have to marry, but I did not want to go through with it,’ Angelica says. ‘I told my stepmother that I couldn’t marry until I had finished school and she talked to my father.’
But Angelica’s father did not listen and couldn’t be persuaded. Angelica spent nearly two years living with her husband before she returned home to her stepmother to ask once again for help, knowing she could not continue the life she had been living.
‘She was scared and looking for guidance. It was my duty to help her,’ says Suzanne Rafael, Angelica’s stepmother. She pleaded with her husband to let Angelica return to Maxixe and start her life anew.
‘We fought hard and we still do not speak of what happened,’ says Suzanne, who was only able to be interviewed away from her family home so that her husband would not overhear. ‘But now Angelica is living with friends in Maxixe, working and making a new life on her own.’
Suzanne is now a fierce advocate for girls’ rights in her community. She has even spoken at village meetings about how child marriage is harmful and should not be seen as the only option for the girls’ futures. She wants to be a model to young girls in the community who see themselves as doctors or teachers or entrepreneurs rather than housewives.
‘I feel it is my purpose and I am proud of what I am doing here in Maxixe,’ she says. ‘It is to convince the boys too that marriage is not always the way. Because boys will be men and men will make the decisions for their daughters.’
Angelica, now 18, has made a second chance for herself to build a life of her choosing.
When asked what she wants to do and what her dreams are, she pauses for a short moment, then says, ‘I want to write well so I can be a journalist.’