The Women of Mozambique Want You to Know About the War You Probably Haven’t Heard Of 

Photo of a woman who walks through an internally displaced person camp in Cabo Delgado Province on May 20, 2021. Photo by John Wessels/AFP via Getty Images.

In Chiúre District, in Mozambique’s Northern Province of Cabo Delgado, women and girls take cover from the midday heat under the shade of trees. Girls jump rope, singing and clapping in unison. The red dust clouds appear from underneath the feet of the girl who jumps rope. The faster the clap, the faster the jump, the bigger the dust cloud.  

This may be the scene one would expect to find on a school playground. But these girls are not in school. They are in a rehabilitation program. The program is designed for women and girls who have survived the worst of the conflict in Northern Mozambique, where brutal sexual violence by armed groups is rampant.    

Women and girls in Northern Mozambique want the world to hear about their experiences. The conflict has been raging for more than five years. Fighting has displaced almost 1 million people. But the war has received marginal global attention. And it’s about to get much worse. 

As soon as July, Southern African Development Community troops who have been providing security are set to withdraw from northern Mozambique. This will undoubtedly create a security vacuum, leaving women and girls with few options for safety or recovery. Urgent action is needed now. 

Even at the rehabilitation center, Mozambique’s women and girls have no formal education, and they are uncertain what the future will bring. Opportunities are very limited. It is almost guaranteed that those living through the conflict in the north will not complete school. 

Refugees International spoke to Mary*, a teenage mother. Her infant was propped up on her waist in a multicolored caluplana* (traditional fabric). The baby’s young limbs stuck out as Mary spoke of the difficulty this war has brought on her. “We don’t have any soap,” she said. “We can’t wash ourselves.” She continued in a defiant voice as her peers listened attentively. “We have no sanitary pads which means sometimes, we cannot go to school, and we don’t have any soap to wash our reusable pads… sometimes we trade ourselves for food or money to buy pads or soap.” 

This is Mary’s world. It is not taboo to speak about this. It is no secret. It is but a hellish reality for her and those around her. The lack of money to buy food not only affects the mothers, but their children too. A poor diet makes it difficult for mothers to lactate and feed their babies, leading to poor early childhood physical and cognitive development.

Cabo Delgado is a study in contrasts. Untapped natural riches lie beneath the surface; yet, by every developmental matrix, it remains poor and lags in comparison to other provinces. It has the highest youth pregnancy rate in the country. A recent study found that 55 percent of 15-19 year old women were pregnant when surveyed. Welfare safety nets are underfunded and poorly implemented, limiting the support these young mothers desperately need.

To begin to address the needs of women and girls, psychological services must be funded. Programs to support pregnant mothers and their infants, including nutritional programs need to be implemented. And special programs for girls who have fallen behind because of pregnancy or conflict must be enhanced. The government of Mozambique, together with its donor partners, must provide the girls with some of their most pressing needs. 

The withdrawal of Southern African Development Community troops will further destabilize Cabo Delgado and increase the risks to women like Mary. Donors and aid actors must move quickly to strengthen support for women and girls who will need both resources and pathways to safety.

This is the very least that Mary, and girls like her deserve.

Featured Image: A woman walks through the Internally Displaced Person camp in Cabo Delgado Province on May 20, 2021. Photo by John Wessels/AFP via Getty Images.