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Mozambique: Early pregnancy threatens a girl’s chance to go to school
“I’m thinking that I can work as an empregada (domestic worker) there. Then study at night. I would like to study very much,” she says, wiping the flies from her toddler’s face.
Although she dotes on her daughter, Zaina Domingoes, Florência, an orphan, concedes the pregnancy was ill-timed. Florência was only 12 years old when she became pregnant. She was doing well at school and had already reached grade five.
“I was only a child when I got pregnant,” says the 14-year-old, suddenly looking very adult. “I didn’t know about preventing pregnancies then.”
Early pregnancy is a major contributor to the high levels of maternal mortality in Mozambique. Forty per cent of women become pregnant before the age of 20. Teenage mothers often face serious health threats in addition to the severe psychological impact of early pregnancy. The risk of death from pregnancy-related causes is four times higher for women 15 to 19 years old than for women who are 20 or older. It is estimated that 408 women out of every 100,000 die during childbirth in Mozambique.
“I fell in love with Domingoes,” Florência says. “When I told him I was pregnant, he said it was not his. But he was the only boyfriend I ever have had.”
Domingoes, who was attending the same school and was in grade eight when Florência became pregnant, continued his education and is now a teacher in the village. “I bump into him sometimes. But we don’t talk.” She pauses and then says softly, “But I still love him.”
Her dream was to continue her schooling. “I was able to hide my pregnancy until the sixth month,” she says. “Nobody knew I was pregnant. I just looked a bit fat. But when I was found out, I was sent home.”
Although the chance that a child in Mozambique will complete his or her basic education has improved considerably since the end of the 16-year-old civil war in 1992, girls are still underrepresented in school. The enrollment rate for girls of primary school age stands at 66 per cent, as opposed to 72 per cent for boys.
A girl who becomes pregnant is sometimes able to return to school, usually by taking courses at night, but practical considerations make it difficult. Not only does the young mother have a baby to care for, but, once she is at home, she also becomes increasingly burdened with heavy domestic chores – as well as with trying to survive in the midst of poverty, crop failure and the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
Mozambique is subject to one of the world’s worst HIV prevalence rates. On average, 14.9 per cent of people aged 15-49 years are infected with the virus. But there are considerable regional variations, and in Manica province, where Florência lives, the prevalence rate reached 19 per cent in 2002.
Like a growing number of children in Mozambique, Florência was probably orphaned by HIV/AIDS. Out of more than 1.5 million orphans in Mozambique, more than 270,000 have already lost one or both parents to AIDS.
Florência’s stepfather died in 1999; her mother died three years later. Florência simply says, “They were sick for about one year, coughing and suffering from diarrhoea.” Her own father was killed during the 16-year-civil war, when she was a baby.
The impact of the HIV/AIDS epidemic hits girls especially hard. They are often the ones who have to care for sick parents and do the domestic work. And in many cases, they are vulnerable to abuse because there is no-one around to protect them. The HIV/AIDS prevalence rate among girls aged 15 to 19 is three times higher than that of boys in the same age group. “I didn’t know about HIV/AIDS when I got pregnant, but now I do,” Florência says.
Like many other girls in her situation, Florência cared for her sick parents and did most of the domestic work. She lives with her elderly grandmother, who is struggling to keep the family going.
Florência says that her grandmother has accepted the baby and has agreed to look after her next year, when Florência hopes to work and study in Tete, a five-hour drive from her home.
But in reality few teenagers caught in Florência’s predicament ever achieve their wish to study and work. Florência will have to find somewhere to live near her workplace - a costly option – or, more likely, be a live-in domestic worker, which she agrees may make it difficult for her to leave each evening in time for her studies.
“I’m making plans. I want to go back to school. I have always wanted to be a nurse,” she says with conviction. “Then one day, maybe I can marry a man who will have me and my daughter.”