With notebooks in her arms and a bright smile, Maria*, 16, is getting ready for another school day. She is in the 9th grade in Mogovolas district, Nampula province, Mozambique, and dreams of becoming a nurse.
"Maria is a passionate student, and so far she is doing well in school," shares Ivone Adelino, an activist who mentors and supports adolescent girls through her work with Fórum Mulher, one of the Civil Society Organizations that partners with the Spotlight Initiative.
Ivone's role is to identify safe places to organize and facilitate mentoring sessions with girls where they can discuss topics related to women's rights and economic empowerment. The sessions take place twice a week, and she encourages the girls to report situations where their rights have been violated, as well as encouraging them to continue their studies.
When she’s not at school, Maria spends her spare time hanging out with her friends and helping her aunt with the housework. Despite losing her parents at a young age, Maria considers herself a happy girl.
“She is a good girl, respectful and hardworking," says the aunt with whom she lives.
However, Maria’s life almost took a different turn, as she nearly became a child bride, a reality that affects thousands of girls in Mozambique, where nearly half of girls marry before 18 (Save the Children, 2015).
When she was in the 7th grade, Maria was approached by her grandmother to marry an older man. When she refused, Maria was asked to leave her home and eventually dropped out of school. After moving in with different family members, she faced pressure to get married again. "I said I could not get married because I was not of the recommended age," she said before adding, "Besides, I needed to finish my studies." The pressure ultimately forced Maria to live alone.
Earlier this year, when Ivone questioned why the girl was not attending school, Maria burst into tears and explained her situation. Taking swift action, the activist reached out to the girl’s relatives to talk with them about the risks and consequences of early and forced unions and reported the situation to the local authorities.
Maria was eventually taken in by another aunt and is now continuing her education, having avoided an early marriage: a fate that would have completely derailed her hopes for her future and violated her right to autonomy over her life and body. "It is a pride for us to see her back in school," shares Ivone.
Maria is now part of a girls' group that participates in mentorship sessions, learning about preventing and reporting cases of early and forced marriage and gender-based violence. Over the past three years, more than 45,000 girls and young women in Nampula province have benefited from these mentorship sessions and door-to-door community campaigns.
Learning from her situation, Maria shares: "I have been advising other girls like me to focus on their studies and to refuse, as many times as needed, to get married before they reach their legal age. Girls should be able to focus only on their studies".
In an effort to eliminate gender-based violence and other harmful practices, the Spotlight Initiative engages activists, community-based groups and associations in Nampula in conducting community dialogue sessions, door-to-door awareness campaigns, peer-to-peer education, and training on sexual and reproductive rights and gender-based violence prevention.
In 2021, Spotlight Initiative in Mozambique trained more than 500 community activists and mentors to conduct face-to-face awareness-raising campaigns in the provinces of Gaza, Manica and Nampula, reaching over 700,000 people. By increasing knowledge and awareness of their rights, girls like Maria are better equipped to say ‘no’ to early unions, seek support, and live the life they truly deserve.
The Spotlight Initiative is a strategic partnership between the EU and the UN. It aims to eliminate all forms of violence against women and girls. In Mozambique, the Spotlight Initiative is led by the Ministry of Gender, Children and Social Action in partnership with the United Nations and civil society organizations.
*Name has been changed to protect the girl's identity.
Original text by: Hélder Xavier and Jessica Lomelin