It is raining lightly as we approach the remote primary school surrounded by coconut palms, acacia and mango trees in Mozambique’s Jangamo district. The school accommodates 900 pupils that attend the school in shifts sharing just a few classrooms.
In one of the classrooms, a group of pupils are singing loudly. Members of Plan International's children’s club are rehearsing before our visit. They meet once a week to discuss issues regarding children’s rights, equality, child marriage and sex education.
In a country where half of all girls are married before the age of 18 and gender roles are strictly rooted in cultural practices, it is important to start challenging stereotypes early.
Champions of change
One of the boys in the club is 14-year old Baptista."I have learnt about human rights and the power relations between women and men. I think that girls and boys are equal. I always help my mother with the dishes after school and my dream is to study to become a nurse," he says.
I tell all the girls I meet, who are married or pregnant - there is hope. I am a living proof that you can succeed anyway.
Mailavia, 12, has a different ambition. "I want to become a traffic policewoman and do traffic spot-checks on the highway," she says.
Plan International believes that this kind of education can pave the way for a new generation of men and women in Mozambique. A generation that no longer accepts only boys completing their education while girls are forced to drop out of school early to give birth in their teens, risking their lives and their futures.
Better opportunities for girls
Octavia Leonardo is an energetic mother of three with her own personal experiences of child marriage. She works at Plan International's office in Maxixe and is responsible for the Better Opportunities for Girls (AMOR) project, which aims to reduce instances of child marriage and increase the number of girls who complete their education.
Today only 1 in 10 girls finish high school and only 1 in 100 continues onto university or take part in a vocational training course. But Octavia runs several children's clubs in different schools and every summer she leads special boys’ and girls’ camps to address ingrained social norms.
"I know exactly what these girls are going through," she says. "I became pregnant myself when I was 15 years old. My family kicked me out and forced me to marry my boyfriend. I was treated like a slave by my in-laws, it was awful. All of this because I had not received any sex education. I didn't know anything about periods or how children are conceived. And can you believe I got pregnant the first time we had sex!"
"I tell all the girls I meet, who are married or pregnant - there is hope. I am a living proof that you can succeed anyway. I left my husband and have over the years acquired a university education and a new family."
Scholarships save girls from child marriage
There is a strong link between child marriage and education as girls who do not attend school tend to marry early. The longer a girl stays in school, the later they marry.
Education also has a protective effect against early pregnancies as educated girls have children later and fewer pregnancies. This is something that pays dividends for the whole community, because when women work they can lift themselves and their children out of poverty.
In order to speed up development so that more girls can go to high school and college, Plan International has built a boarding school so that girls who live in rural areas can go to school. They receive a scholarship to pay for school supplies and uniforms and live at the school during term time.
Approved by girls
15-year old Sofia would have been forced to drop out of education after primary school if she had not received a place at the boarding school. The journey to the nearest high school would have been far too long and unsafe for her to walk every day.
"I was so pleased when I received a scholarship. Most of my friends have dropped out of school. Some of them because they became pregnant and got married, others because their parents are poor and they need to help out," Sofia says.
Sofia herself wants to postpone the idea of marriage and family for as long as possible.
"I want to marry when I'm 30 years old. My parents support my education and listen to me. My dream is to become a doctor. The hospital is far from where we live and I have a family member who is seriously ill that I want to help."