AN ESCALATION OF VIOLENCE in Cabo Delgado province in Mozambique is driving up cases of early and forced marriage, with girls abducted and forced into marriage by armed groups or by families seeking a dowry, Save the Children has said.

Child protection staff from Save the Children have found an increase of 10 per cent in recorded cases of child marriage in 2023 compared to the previous year, with fears the numbers will rise further as the conflict cuts children off from the protection and support needed. More and more children are voicing concerns that this could happen to them as the conflict heads towards its eighth year with no end in sight.

A surge of attacks in Cabo Delgado since January this year has led to school closures putting more than 22,700 children out of the classroom. The violence has also led to the widespread destruction of property and displacement. The most recent attack last month saw gunmen hold the town of Macomia under siege for two days. They also raided a medical facility, looting vehicles and medical supplies.

At least 700 people fled the latest fighting in Macomia, with data from the UN in June showing more than 189,000 people have been forced from their homes since the end of last year, the largest displacement since the start of the conflict which has killed over 4,000 people and forced more than 700,000 people from their homes since 2017.

The data on child marriages comes as Save the Children launches a major report on gender and power analysis of child marriages in Cabo Delgado following a recent assessment in Chiure and Palma districts. Children told the aid agency and partners that they have seen an uptick in early marriages and teen pregnancies and they are scared it will happen to them.

Some said their parents were doing this to get money to feed their families as conflict has depleted household incomes, weakened protection services, and led to a lack of opportunities for adolescents. Some cultural practices and traditions are also fuelling the increase in child marriages, children said in the survey.

The report also shows that cases of forced marriage have taken place after the abduction of girls by organised armed groups, or as a strategy to resolve sexual abuse, with families opting to receive assets or money as dowry compensation.

Telma (not her real name), is 17, a survey participant, said she has friends and knows girls from her community who have gone through this horrifying ordeal. She said: “Some girls are still in prison [held by armed groups] today. They are forced to obey everything they are told to do, and they even have children. Even little girls are taken and grow up there, until they become women. Some girls are killed, and the younger ones are left to grow up for a while and then they are forced to have sex.”

Early and forced marriage has devastating consequences for a girl’s life. Girls married young are far less likely to stay in school and are at higher risk of physical and sexual violence. They are also at greater risk of experiencing dangerous complications in pregnancy and childbirth.

Save the Children is calling for a speedy resolution to the conflict in Cabo Delgado and for more funds to be made available to provide care and assistance for girls and boys facing increasing risk of child marriages and other protection concerns. Further, Save the Children appeals to the parties in the conflict to respect the integrity and rights of the children ensuring that they are not targets and are not involved.

Save the Children’s Country Director in Mozambique, Brechtje van Lith, said: “Child marriage not only robs girls of their childhood but also has severe long-term consequences on their health, education, and overall development. It perpetuates a cycle of poverty and inequality, impacting not just the individual child but also the wider community.

“The girls of Cabo Delgado have the right to a secure future of their choice, including the right to an education and a career, the right to decide if, when, and whom they marry and have children; and the right to access quality health care and social services. It is our collective duty to protect these girls. Now we understand the complexities of their world better, and it is vital that we now strategise together with the government, development and humanitarian partners to protect these girls and allow them to enjoy their rights.”

Save the Children has been working in Mozambique since 1986 and is one of the leading development and humanitarian agencies in the country. The organisation’s humanitarian response reached about 370,000 people, including 133,000 girls, in Cabo Delgado last year through education, child protection services, health and nutrition as well as cash and voucher assistance. Save the Children is also focused on identifying unaccompanied and separated children, providing mental health and psychosocial support in Macomia.

* The report, Gender and Power analysis of Child Marriage in Cabo Delgado Province June 2024 can be downloaded here.

* Source: Save the Children