“Early marriage in Mozambique is a form of sexual abuse,” says Halkeno Terfasa, FH program manager in Mozambique.
“I am saying this because, on marrying, a girl is expected to surrender her childhood and assume the role of a woman. This includes engaging in sexual relations with a husband who might be older than she, and whom she might not have chosen,” he says.
Early marriage disproportionately affects girls more than boys. Halkeno reports that while 23 percent of all Mozambican girls are married by age 15, only 3 percent of boys are married by the same age. This means the girls are most often matched with older men.
Older men mean economic stability and food to eat — things that otherwise may not be available to a young girl born into extreme poverty. In theory, an older man may signify safety and provision, but these inter-generational relationships also increase the spread of HIV and other STDs to children, while inviting abuse.
“In our community [Mozambique],” says Halkeno, “sexual abuse occurs at high rates but is rarely reported to the authorities.”
Traditional Mozambican law dictates that if a girl is raped, the abuser must pay a material fine to the family. But if the victim becomes pregnant, the abuser must marry her.
“This response ignores the deep trauma associated with sexual abuse by legitimizing the crime and placing the victim in a potentially abusive relationship,” says Halkeno.
At FH, we believe all poverty stems from broken relationships. This indicator of poverty — sexual abuse of children — shows a broken relationship between men and women, adults and children, parents and offspring. It begins with the family, so FH goes straight to the family to address it.
To reach the most people while using limited resources, FH trains community volunteers to reach out to their own neighbors. For example, in Mozambique, one paid FH staff member will train 12 volunteers from local churches on sexual-abuse prevention, the importance of education for children (especially girls), healthy family relationships, and other biblical values. In turn, those 12 volunteers will take these lessons to 15 families.
In this way, one staff member can impact 180 families.
An evaluation at the end of year 2010 showed success — fewer early marriages were taking place, more girls were going to school, and school drop-outs were decreasing. In one case involving an 11-year-old girl married to a 45-year-old man, after FH intervened, the girl was allowed to return home and go back to school.
If you’d like to help give back to girls their childhoods, consider joining Poverty 180’s gender-based injustice group for only $9 per month.