MOSSURIL, Mozambique (TrustLaw) – In the sleepy, fishing town of Mossuril, in northern Mozambique, six-year-old girls sneak into video halls and bars at night to sell their bodies, putting themselves at risk of sexually transmitted infections and, later, life-threatening pregnancies.
“Since the cost of life has skyrocketed, you find kids the age of six in nightclubs looking for men just to make ends meet,” Luisa Raquel dos Anjos, who educates members of her local community about sexual and reproductive health, said.
“They start having sex with adults. They get involved in drugs and alcohol.”
In the shade of a mango tree, dos Anjos demonstrated condom use on male and female plastic models. The 50-odd village girls and women seated at her feet exploded with laughter.
But a serious message was also conveyed. Only 12 per cent of women of reproductive age in Mozambique use contraception.
Globally, the two leading causes of death of women of reproductive age are HIV/AIDS and complications of pregnancy and childbirth, according to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).
“Girls are dying in this country because they are getting pregnant and infected too early,” Patricia Guzman, UNFPA’s Mozambique representative, said.
Delaying their sexual debut and increasing the use of contraceptives is key to saving their lives.
The exchange of sex for money or other economic benefits is so common among girls in Mozambique, they even have a special name in Portuguese for the older ones: “catorzinhas” (little fourteens).
“Those are girls of 14, 15 or16, who have a boyfriend the same age and also have an old man. In general, the old man is married to another woman,” Debora Nandja, UNFPA’s national programme officer for adolescent and young people, said.
“She’s looking for an old man to support her with money. You can see the girl loves the boyfriend but she sells her body to the old man.”
Such relationships contribute significantly to the spread of HIV/AIDS, which is three times higher among girls aged 15 to 24, at 11 percent, than among boys of the same age.
UNFPA and the government are among those working on a project called Geracao Biz (Busy Generation), which provides young people with information about sexual and reproductive health issues and encourages safe behaviour.
There are 9,000 young activists across the country who educate their age mates about sex and other social issues in schools and in the local community.
“As peer educators, we try to show young girls they have rights and they can choose when to start to have sex and with who,” one activist, Margarida Leila, 20, said at a youth-friendly clinic in Mavalane, on the outskirts of the capital Maputo.
“We have early pregnancies because we don’t know how to negotiate safer sex. Women think that men are the ones who can decide in the relationship.”
READY FOR SEX
A girl is considered ready to start having sex as soon as she begins her periods.
“You have the first menstruation, you go through the rites, and then from that moment you are entitled to become a mother and a wife,” said Zulmira Rodrigues, a specialist for culture with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
“If the girl is 10 years old, 12 years old and undergoes the initiation rites, she’s seen as fit to fulfil adult sexual reproductive duties.”
Although the legal age of marriage is 18, child marriage is part of Mozambique’s traditional culture.
“When girls turn 14, they marry and drop out of school,” Mario Paciano, the local government’s director of education, youth and technology in Mossuril, said.
The U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child considers marriage before the age of 18 a human rights violation but most girls in Mozambique marry at 17.5 years old.
‘SOONER THEY LEAVE, THE BETTER’
Poverty is one of the drivers of child marriage.
“You can imagine in a family where there are 11 kids and their sole income is traditional fishing, the sooner they leave (home), the better, because they reduce the burden on the family,” Amancio Vilankulo, a UNFPA communications officer with UNFPA in Mozambique, said.
But child marriage only perpetuates the cycle, trapping the girl and her children deeper into poverty, ignorance and poor health, experts say.
In a society where there is a lot of intergenerational conflict over women's roles and aspirations, Geracao Biz provides young girls with the space and information to make their own decisions about their sexual behaviour.
“We talk with young people about getting education and what kind of changes you can make if you go to school,” Nandja of UNFPA, said.
“We talk about the kind of women you want to be.”