Fighting back against tradition and their families, girls in Mozambique are choosing independence and bravely rejecting child marriage.
For many, the gentle rushing sound of the ocean lapping at the shore symbolises 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 fourteen years old.
That was just before she was forced to marry by her father. 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 at age fourteen, she says she felt too ashamed to carry on going to school as her pregnancy bump swelled, and two months before her son was born, she was married to his father and living in his family home. Obeying local tradition, she assumed all household responsibility for her husband’s family.
She was a housewife by fifteen.
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,” Flavia 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 just a couple of years older than herself 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 fathers choice.”
The legal age of marriage in Mozambique is eighteen, or sixteen with parental consent, and despite efforts of the government to curb rates of child marriage 56 per cent of girls nationwide are married by their eighteenth birthday.
The country has the sixth highest rate of child marriage in the world.
This is partly because in the country’s rural communities, particularly in the north, girls rights are practically non-existent. If parents discover their daughter is dating someone, they will insist she marry him. If they fall pregnant, a common occurrence in Mozambique where the national rate of adolescent pregnancy is 12 per cent, girls will be forced to marry the baby’s father.
Girls 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 sometimes 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’s a stifling life for these girls. With little or no power over the decisions that will shape their lives, they are taken from their childhood homes and removed from school to become the primary carer of their husband’s family. It can seem hopeless, an impossible dream to escape and begin a new life of independence.
But five years on, Flavia’s is living away from her husband, in the small community of Jago in the Jangamo District. 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. She escaped.
Leaving a forced marriage is a terrifying prospect. Mozambique’s traditional culture is one that does not freely accept divorce and often it is 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.” Flavia says.
“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 being forced to marry when she was fifteen caused deep divisions in her family.
Like Flavia, Angelica fell pregnant to a boy she was dating when she was fifteen. 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 saying she had no choice or her father would kick her out.
“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 cannot marry before I have 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 once again ask for help, knowing she could not continue the life she had been living.
“She was scared and looking for guidance. She needed more than herself to fight this situation and it was my duty to help her.” Says 57-year-old 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 Maxixie and 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 to their girls and should not be seen as the only option for their 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.”
For Angelica, now 18-years-old she 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.”