Andrea M. Wojnar is a Resident Representative for the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) in Mozambique. She received her M.A. in International Relations, African Social Change & Development and International Economics from SAIS.

The ability of girls and women to control their own bodies is fundamental to their empowerment. Protecting and promoting reproductive rights – including the right to decide the number, timing, and spacing of children – is essential to ensure women’s freedom to participate in society. However, girls and women in developing countries continue to face systemic disadvantages, often rooted in societal norms that foster widespread gender inequality and gender-based violence.

On a recent trip to Zambezia province in Northern Mozambique, I met Joaquina, 16, who was pushed by female relatives to marry an older man because “she was the pretty one.” Joaquina quickly became pregnant and, after a lengthy labor, contracted obstetric fistula, one of the most tragic complications of childbirth. Obstetric fistula is a hole between the birth canal and bladder or rectum caused by prolonged, obstructed labor that lacks medical support. The condition leaves the mother continuously leaking urine and feces and often leads to chronic medical problems, child abandonment, depression, social isolation, and worsened poverty.

Worldwide, an estimated 16 million girls between the ages of 15 and 19 give birth each year, with 90% of those births occurring within marriage (UNFPA, Girlhood, Not Motherhood). Child marriage is a human rights violation and a form of violence that denies girls their childhood and puts them at risk of youth pregnancy and its associated health risks.

For years, Joaquina didn't know her condition had a cure; her husband, who left her, didn’t either. Despite her suffering, she still participated in a local youth parliament where, after hearing her story, someone encouraged her to seek treatment.

Now, Joaquina feels like a woman again, and is an advocate for the prevention of early marriage and pregnancy in underage women. Her dream is to become a teacher who influences the next generation of girls to make healthy and informed choices. She serves as a mentor in the Rapariga Biz girls’ empowerment program as a step towards achieving this dream.

Rapariga Biz is a joint UN program financed by the Kingdom of Sweden and the UK Department for International Development. It aims to empower 70% of young women ages 15-19 (1 million women) in two Mozambican provinces by 2020. The program involves Mozambique government officials from the highest levels, UN agencies, the media and local communities; it aims to ensure that adolescent girls have access to education, health services, life skills, and human and legal rights knowledge, primarily through peer-to-peer mentorship. Initial results are demonstrating enormous decreases in early marriage and pregnancy among participants – for women within the program, the rate of early pregnancy is below 5% (versus the national average of 46%) and the rate of early marriage is below 3% (versus the national average of 48%).

Rapariga Biz also benefits from the UN Global Programme to Accelerate Action to End Child Marriage, which targets children between the ages of 10 and 19 in 12 countries. UNFPA in Mozambique supports the implementation of similar projects in other provinces like the My Choice Program and the Spotlight Initiative to Eliminate Violence Against Women and Girls. Through efforts like these, Joaquina and her peers will be well-positioned to make significant contributions to Mozambique’s social and economic development.

As a mother of two daughters who are being raised to demand their full human rights, I feel proud of Joaquina as if she were one of mine. Rather than feeling shameful, she is using her horrific personal experience to inform others about the dangers of early pregnancy. I am pleased to be a leader in the UNFPA that works tirelessly to secure youth sexual and reproductive health and rights worldwide.

PHOTO CREDIT: SIM USA, from Flickr Creative Commons, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.