It was a tough challenge that met strong resistance. But the group of young women that promote sexual and reproductive health among their peers in Montepuez could not have imagined the impact their actions would have on their communities.
“Some parents and guardians thought we were encouraging their daughters to choose the wrong path,” said Celia Calisto, 26.
With hard work and persistence, the mentors are chipping away at this common misperception.
“Nowadays, parents and guardians thank us for the choices made by their daughters, because [the girls] understand that they should focus on their studies and prevent unwanted pregnancies and early marriage,” explained Alima Rachid Bacar, 21.
Alongside hundreds of other young women, Celia and Alima were trained as mentors under ‘My Choice’, a sexual and reproductive health and rights programme funded by the Kingdom of the Netherlands. They learned to lead community discussions with young people to raise awareness on sexual and reproductive health, gender-based violence (GBV) and women’s and girls’ empowerment.
Addressing high teen pregnancy rates
These mentorship sessions are critical, as Mozambique’s northern provinces register the highest rates of adolescent pregnancy and maternal mortality in the country, alongside the lowest rate of contraceptive use (at just one in five).
The aim of the programme, which ended in December 2022, was to reduce unwanted pregnancies among adolescent girls and young women through ensuring universal access to family planning and sexual and reproductive health services in Tete and Cabo Delgado provinces. To achieve this, it focused on increasing the availability of family planning commodities, mentoring girls and young women to improve their knowledge of and access to information about sexual and reproductive health, and ensuring the availability of services in youth-friendly spaces and mobile services.
In Cabo Delgado, for example, more than 129,600 adolescents and young people were reached by mobile brigades – medical teams that travelled to remote and isolated areas to deliver services – and through community health workers, who reached more than quadruple the number of people.
The dramatic increase in the number of young people reached with these services resulted from a large influx of internally displaced persons to the districts where the programme was being run. They were displaced during attacks in the northern districts of the province, which have disrupted the continuity of social services and increased the demand for adolescent sexual and reproductive health, as well as family planning services.
In a province that has experienced an increase in violence and insecurity, mentors play a key role in helping young women and adolescent girls to make informed and empowered decisions about their health, bodily autonomy and future.
Mentor Estefânia Arlindo beamed with pride when she explained her role in preventing unwanted and premature pregnancies. “There was limited information and a lot of myths around contraceptive use among the girls, but today, they are more aware of their sexual and reproductive rights. I have referred them to the youth-friendly [spaces],” she said.
From October to December 2022, the programme supported more than 3,000 young people who visited youth-friendly health services throughout Cabo Delgado.
Changing mindsets in the community
The work of the female mentors is complemented by community health workers, activists and community leaders (traditional and religious leaders and other local influencers), such as José Francisco, a village headman from Natite in Cabo Delgado. José was trained on educating the community about women and girls’ sexual and reproductive health and rights, and ways to eliminate GBV.
With the support of implementing partners, José leads door-to-door awareness campaigns and conducts talks in markets, fairs, churches and mosques. “All adult men are informed and aware of the consequences of getting involved with underage girls,” he said. “Whoever disrespects this, in addition to referring them to the appropriate authorities, [they] are required to leave our village.”
His sentiment is supported by Albertina Pentane, a respected and influential community elder, who said in the past, women and girls did not frequent health centres, much less use any contraceptive methods. Thanks to the My Choice project, this scenario has changed. “We see fewer reports of early and unwanted pregnancies, because women and girls are aware and have decided to use family planning,” she said.
UNFPA is committed to supporting the Government of Mozambique, through projects financed by development partners such as the Kingdom of the Netherlands and which enable the most vulnerable women, girls and youth to gain access to sexual and reproductive health services in even the most remote areas.
Using local influencers like mentors, community leaders and community health workers, these projects contribute to the reduction of early and unwanted pregnancies, making steadfast progress towards achieving UNFPA’s three transformative results of zero unmet need for family planning, zero preventable maternal death and zero gender-based violence and harmful practices in Mozambique.
Distributed by APO Group on behalf of UNFPA – East and Southern Africa.