Namaacha, Mozambique – Carlota Domingos sits on a four-legged wooden stool in front of a one-room mud house, which clings to the side of a dry, rocky hill separating Mozambique from the landlocked kingdom of Swaziland.
Sixteen-year-old Domingos is eight months pregnant and divorced. When her husband lost his job and she became pregnant, his family pushed her out of their home, saying they could not afford to care for her any longer.
“I did not see this coming. People have stopped talking to me. I have even lost my friends,” Domingos told Al Jazeera in a clear, soft voice, her eyes cast down at her feet.
In this border town of Namaacha, and across this Portuguese-speaking southern African country of some 25 million people, the practice of child marriage is not uncommon.
According to the United Nation’s Children Education Fund (UNICEF), nearly one in two women aged between 20 and 24 were married or in a union before they were 18 years old.
The country has the tenth highest rate of child marriage in the world. In Mozambique, the legal age of marriage is 18, but where parents or guardians have given consent, the age is 16.
Domingos married at 15 and became pregnant before she turned 16.
Now, back at her family home, Domingos has dropped out of school because her husband, who was 17 when they were married, abandoned her.
“Now I’m almost nine months pregnant. I can barely walk let alone go to work or attend classes in school. I depend on my family. They have accepted me back into the family,” she said.
At the town’s primary school teachers have become accustomed to seeing their most promising female pupils drop out each term due to early unplanned pregnancies or because they get married.
“Every term, at least five students drop out because of this. The girls are getting married or falling pregnant because they are trying to escape from difficult conditions at home. When they have no food or clothes to wear it is easy for men to tell them lies and abuse them,” Ranita David Murasse, the director of EPCDE primary school, told Al Jazeera.
The school has 253 pupils and less than half are female. In the lower grades, there are more girls than boys; from sixth grade, there are more boys than girls.
“We have fewer girls than boys because of pregnancies and marriage. Parents can’t afford to buy their children books or sandals, and men take advantage of this sad economic situation. [For] almost all the girls who get pregnant, the men [who impregnate them] are older,” Murasse added.
Teachers at the local school feel they are fighting a losing battle.
“We live in a border town where men with money pass through. They offer our girls who come from poor families gifts and money. These men carry diseases and health problems. Our situation is critical,” Cristina Sevene, a teacher at the primary school, said, her voice filled with anger.
Low levels of education and a lack of reproductive health information leaves the young girls at an increased risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases.
Thirty minutes’ drive from the town towards the capital Maputo, and a stone’s throw from the highway connecting Mozambique and Swaziland, lies a small village of no more than four huts. The two families that live in the village grind out their existence from the nearby windswept fields.
They keep a couple of goats and a handful of chickens to supplement the little they eke out from the fields. The families said they could barely put food on the table, let alone send their children to school. This is a scene repeated across rural Mozambique.
The young girls and the poverty-stricken families are at the mercy of men with cash.
Attending to a young boy on the side of the family field is 24-year-old Rebecca Salomao. She dropped out of school when she was 15, after she ran off with her boyfriend.
Less than two years ago, after she had had her son, she found out that she had contracted HIV through her former boyfriend. Luckily for her, the viral disease was diagnosed after a local charity conducted a blood test on her.
“My mother abandoned me when I was a year old. She couldn’t look after me; my grandmother raised me,” Salomao told Al Jazeera.
“We had nothing. My former boyfriend, who was HIV-positive, did not tell me about his HIV status. That is how I got infected with it. He has now left me and my son,” she said.
Helping vulnerable girls
Mozambique, with one of the fastest-growing economies on the continent, has realised the scale of the problem and is pushing to reverse the trend.
Educating the masses about the benefits of keeping girls in school and not marrying them off is the solution, says the government.
“We are reviewing our laws and are also creating girls’ clubs where they can get help confidentially,” Jorge Ferrao, the education minister, told Al Jazeera.
“When a student gets pregnant, she is forced to abandon school. To reduce the phenomenon, we must seek practical ways to reduce it. With a more literate society, we will reduce the phenomenon,” Ferrao said.
The government’s efforts might have come a little too late for Domingos, the pregnant 16-year-old, but she hopes to return to school once she gives birth.
“My dream – before getting married and pregnant – was to become a teacher. That is still my dream. And when I deliver, I hope to go back to school,” she said.
Follow Hamza Mohamed on Twitter: @Hamza_Africa