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Being a Young Woman in Central Mozambique

Filipa (pseudonym) lives in the city of Tete, in central Mozambique. She is an 18-year-old orphan who takes care of her niece. She found herself in a difficult situation — she was pregnant. Previously, she had gone to a health facility to get an implant, but decided against it, as the nurse had misadvised her that she was too young, and the implant could leave her infertile.

Unfortunately, Filipa’s story is not unique. With funding from Global Affairs Canada, Pathfinder conducted a baseline survey for the Supporting Family Planning and Abortion Services in Mozambique project that gave us insights into the environmental challenges that young women and girls face when it comes to deciding about their sexual and reproductive health (SRH). We interviewed 2,392 adolescent girls and young women (AGYW), ages 15 to 24, and 2,469 men, ages 18 to 49, in Manica and Tete provinces.

We found that 15 percent of the AGYW in this area had never been to school. Of those who went to school, 54 percent had left after primary school, and only 29 percent completed 5th grade.

Child, early, and forced marriage is common in Mozambique and particularly prevalent in these provinces, where 60 percent of young women (20-24) surveyed were married before they were 18. Of those interviewed, 12 percent reported having experienced physical violence in the previous 12 months. 71 percent said it was their husband or partner who inflicted the violence. Almost 50 percent believed there were times in which a woman deserves to be beaten. Nearly 30 percent thought that it is the husband’s right to have sex even if the wife refused.

Of the men interviewed, one in three think that rape is shameful for families and it is preferable to resolve the situation with some compensation from the aggressor rather than to have the woman make a complaint. Also, almost one in three men think that a rapist can be forgiven if he marries the woman or girl he raped. Women still shoulder the blame for rape and have also internalized these patriarchal norms—more than 25 percent of AGYW think a husband has the right to kick his wife out of the house if she is raped. Rape outside marriage is often considered a crime against a woman’s husband or girl’s family, as the raped woman or girl is seen as less valuable, impure, or a ‘’damaged good,’’ and the penalties for rape often involve compensations to the family or other arrangements.

The survey showed that 43 percent of AGYW use contraceptives and 57 percent are already mothers. AGYW face different barriers to access contraceptives, including misperceptions such as the idea that a girl or young woman who has never been pregnant may have health risks if she uses a contraceptive (45 percent of those interviewed believe that to be the case). Simultaneously the pressure many girls and young women experience to show their ‘’reproductive value’’ is high. One in four men think that a woman who cannot bear children is not a real woman.

Turning back to Filipa’s story, being a mother at 18 was not the future she wanted. She wanted to continue in school, so she sought a solution in a clandestine abortion. Safe abortion services are legal and free in Mozambique until the 12th week of pregnancy, but many are unaware of the services gradually being implemented. The stigma and myths surrounding abortion continue to be prevalent. Therefore, girls and women still resort to the clandestine abortions, even though many of them know of a girl or woman who died because of them.

While very sick, Filipa met a community activist from the project, who was promoting voluntary sexual and reproductive health services through household visits. The activist accompanied her to the health facility, where she was treated in a judgment-free, youth-friendly environment, and was offered post-abortion contraception, all aspects that Pathfinder has emphasized as priorities in supporting health facilities.

In our work we have the chance of meeting incredible girls and women, who, like Filipa, are survivors of harsh, environments and gender inequalities that limit their education, and reduce their choices and decision-making power.

Many girls are trapped in this vicious cycle of poverty. There is not a one size fits all solution, but the results of our survey show that empowering adolescent girls and young women to make their own decisions is a first step. This can be accomplished though:

  • Ensuring that girls have access to unbiased health care.
  • Creating spaces for girls to share their ideas and learn about their bodies, their rights, and health.
  • Promoting community dialogues and local reflection around unequal gender and social norms and SRH issues to foster local actions.

Our team is motivated to continue to challenge unequal norms, push for girls and young women’s voices to be heard, engage leaders and decision-makers, and improve youth-responsive services.

Filipa is safe and back to school again. Although in a vulnerable situation, she moves forward with determination. Not all girls survive such experiences, but I believe that if we continue to work in this direction, we can make this something many adolescent girls and young women never have to face.