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June 2, 2005

Women in Mozambique: A Luta Continua

Over the course of many years, women in the United States have fought for and won many liberties and freedoms. American women now have the right and privilege to work outside of the home and they can expect to be paid fairly for their efforts. Women are afforded, for the most part, adequate health care, childcare, reproductive rights, voting rights, and workers rights. Many women take these freedoms and liberties for granted and, perhaps, cannot relate to the days when women did not have such rights. Around the world, however, women still fight for equality and for their rights. Mozambican women are one such group. They stand at the threshold of positive change. That change, however, is very slow in coming.

Briefly, the history of Mozambique is a history of conflict and struggle. Generally, before the European "discovery" of Mozambique, the different ethnic and cultural groups within Mozambique lived relatively peaceful lives with just the occasional conflict with neighboring groups. However, in 1898 that peaceful tradition changed with the first arrival of the Portuguese led by Bartholomew Diaz (Finnegan 27). It was not until early in the nineteenth century that the slave trade made its significant mark on Africa and on Mozambique. Throughout the course of the slave trade, it is estimated that over one million Mozambicans were captured and sold into slavery in Brazil, the United States, and various Caribbean islands (Finnegan 27). The slave trade continued well into the twentieth century; however, internal slavery continued to plague Mozambicans, in the form of forced labor on internal plantations, was not outlawed until 1961 (Finnegan 28). Mozambicans gained independence from Portugal in 1975 after a 13-year struggle (Finnegan 29, 30).

Unfortunately for Mozambique and for the Mozambicans, immediately after independence was won, internal civil war broke out and continued for another 17 years and claimed in excess of one million lives (Da Silva 3). Mozambique was yet another Cold War battle ground. Different Communist countries, especially Cuba and the USSR, initially aided FRELIMO, the current governing party and the party that won Mozambique its independence, with arms, money, educational resources, and governmental support. Countries such as Rhodesia (now called Zimbabwe) first and then groups within Zimbabwe and Apartheid South Africa openly supported RENAMO, the rebel group (now a legitimate political party). Their aim was to prevent more African countries from being governed by Africans. The United States covertly supported RENAMO usually by funneling money and arms through South Africa and Zimbabwe in an effort to keep communism out of Africa. A peace accord was not signed until 1992 between the two warring factions. Obviously, the people of Mozambique, the women especially, still feel the effects of years and years of war and the devastation that accompanies it. The years of war and the years of oppression create a framework for all development and humanitarian issues. Today Mozambique is still one of the poorest countries in the world. The CIA World Factbook states that 70% of the population lives in poverty (CIA). Further, the people of Mozambique have the lowest life expectancy in the world with a ranking of just 31.3 years among the 225 countries surveyed (CIA). Obviously, much needs to still be done in terms of development and progress. It is important to note that approximately 37 different ethnic groups co-exist in Mozambique. Each has its own language and culture. Life in Mozambique is complex and layered by numerous influences: tribal, Portuguese, western, developmental, etc.

Over 70% of the population of Mozambique lives rurally (DaSilva 24). Woman's work, especially in agriculture, is at the center of family and village life. The average day for the average rural woman is consumed with running the household. Just to get water enough for the family often means a 10-kilometer trek just to get to the well. Women carry the water home in enormous 5-10 gallon drums (Sheldon 12, 23). Often half of the day can be used JUST to procure water. Women generally take full responsibility for the agricultural work as well. Most work in their machamba, a small self-sufficient field cultivated for family use, using a small short-handled hoe to feed their families. Their everyday work also includes finding firewood. This task grows exceedingly more difficult as populations grow and wood becomes more and more scarce. Women are solely responsible for making food for the family and caring for the children. Mothers carry their young children on their backs and breastfeed on-demand until a child is at least three years old. Massa, the staple in the Mozambican diet, is made from ground corn and water. Women, of course, are responsible for not only cultivating the corn but also grinding it in an enormous version of a mortar and pestle. This task alone takes hours each day. Many other tasks including laundry, shopping in the market, and cleaning always fall to the women, too. (Sheldon 20-28)

Presently, many Mozambican men find themselves working in the diamond mines of South Africa out of financial necessity. Some estimates have placed the number of foreign laborers in South African mines at the one million mark, of which many are Mozambicans. Because of the migration of men to neighboring countries for work, there are only 90 men for every 100 women in Mozambique (Da Silva 17). Out of necessity, Mozambican women make significant contributions to the Mozambican economy. 60% of all crop production, both independent and commercial, is due to the efforts of women (Da Silva 21). Women, additionally, are afforded a certain degree of power within the household and immediate community. Even still, women are dependant on the money that men can earn in the formal sector for practical necessities. Migrant labor contributes significantly to the spread of HIV/AIDS. Many men are away from their wives for significant amounts of time and are only afforded a few visits home per year. The mines are also known as being "hot spots" for sex workers, some of whom are even hired by the mining companies to keep their employees happy amid harsh working conditions (McGeary 42). Obviously, when the men return home, women fall victim to the unfaithfulness of their husbands or boyfriends. Regrettably, there is a significant amount of stigma attached to the use of condoms. Men often berate their wife or girlfriend who requests condoms and assume that the woman was unfaithful during their absence. Because of the economic reliance women have on men, women often cannot risk displeasing their husbands and boyfriends and thus cause the men to leave.

The war for independence and the civil war that followed were fought with low-level weaponry, such as machetes and land mines, and guerrilla tactics, such as the destruction of schools and hospitals. Even today, 12 years after the end of the war, the effects of the war are still seen and felt. After the peace accord was signed to end the war in 1992, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees distributed seeds and agricultural tools to many of the 1.6 million refugees and the 4 million internally displaced people in order to encourage agricultural production (Da Silva 12). The Mozambican people returned to their farms in droves and quickly began producing crops. As previously noted, women in Mozambique hold responsibility for the majority of agricultural production. Because of the nearly two million landmines that are still left unexploded from the war, often in farmland, women are the disproportionate victims of landmines. Landmines are often designed to maim, not kill, and because of a sheer lack of resources, both monetary and material, landmine victims are rarely fitted with prosthetic limbs nor are wheelchairs available. Thus, women and their children become economic burdens on family members after landmine injuries.

Women in many countries around the world face discrimination and lack of access when it comes to education. Mozambican women and girls are no different. The Portuguese, as colonizers, differed from the English, for example, concerning education. The English and others typically saw education as a means for gaining future economic contributions from Africans. The Portuguese saw their colonies solely as a source of exploitable labor and resources. They made nearly no investment in education in Mozambique throughout their colonial domination. Nevertheless, during the civil war an astonishing number of schools, 70% nationwide, were destroyed (Itano 12). Even today efforts are still being made to rebuild and build schools throughout the country. However, the children still suffer because of the great loss. Basic primary education is compulsory for the first 7 years of education. Yet, in some areas only 44% of eligible girls are enrolled in school (Da Silva 30). Parents often are forced to decide whom, of their children, they can afford to send to school. As it stands now, parents often believe that in the future their sons can make better economic use of their education and monetarily support the family in the future. For their daughters, though, parents often rely on the contributions of their daughters to the household chores, including agriculture, and do not think they can afford that loss of labor. The majority of girls who are enrolled in school drop out before they reach the 5th grade (Itano 12). Additionally, sexual abuse of female students is a reality in Mozambique. Parents often fear that teachers or students will sexually abuse their daughters while at school. Obviously, pregnancy and additional children create more of a financial burden on a family. A woman or girl may not be able to be married, in very traditional societies within Mozambique, if she has had any sexual experience, including rape or abuse (Itano 12). In an effort to alleviate the fears of parents and to promote the education of girls, great strides are being taken to ensure the safety of female students and even more women are being trained to be teachers.

While many aspects of life for women are quite discouraging and negative, there are a great many encouraging notes. For example, the current governing group FRELIMO, due to their communist origins, determined that 50% of positions within their party will be held by women. Currently, the 28.6% of the Mozambican parliament is female (the opposition party, RENAMO, does not have the same philosophy and hold nearly half of the seats in parliament). This percentage ranks highest in all of Southern Africa and it is among the highest percentage in the world (well above the United States) (Da Silva 50). Additionally, on February 19, 2004, Joaquim Chissano, the president at the time, signed Luisa Diogo, the first female Prime Minister, into office. Diogo herself noted that positions such as hers are exceptional throughout the world.

Also of great note of importance is the prevalence and popularity of the Organização da Mulher Moçambicana (OMM-the Mozambican Women's Organization). Members of FRELIMO founded OMM in 1972 at the height of the war for independence from Portugal by (Sheldon 132). At first, the main objectives of the group were to fight against colonialism and to put an end to discrimination and exploitation of women and girls. The government has always stressed the importance of the role of OMM and women within FRELIMO. There are approximately 300,000 active members of OMM nationwide today (Sheldon 202). It was mainly through the appeals of OMM that a resolution to End All Forms of Discrimination Against Women was ratified into the constitution in 1991 (Sheldon 206). Additionally, OMM champions education for women and girls and moves to change some traditions, such as the bride price and polygamy, which foster inequalities between the sexes. One of the most recent campaigns was a project to raise awareness about domestic violence. Rape is illegal in Mozambique; however, there is not a law on the books that deems domestic abuse illegal. Many men believe that if they paid a bride price for their wives that it was within their rights to beat her. Women, likewise, held the belief that spousal abuse was "normal" behavior for men. Unfortunately, domestic violence is all too prevalent. Most Mozambican women can report beatings from fathers, boyfriends, and husbands (Sheldon 216). There is a great dichotomy between the power that women have gained politically and within the major cities and the power that very rural women hold.

In any developing or impoverished country, women's health issues are at the forefront of development. In Mozambique, there are only approximately 20 obstetric and gynecology specialists to care for a nation of 15 million people (Fox 2). The maternal mortality rate is 1500 deaths for every 100,000 women (Da Silva 9). Many women who live in rural areas simply do not have the luxury of going to a hospital or to have any medical supervision of their childbirth. Additionally, there are cultural factors that come into play. Many women in highly traditional marriages need their husband's permission to see medical treatment of any sort. Many women define their femininity as being able to give birth unassisted. Therefore, seeking help is seen as a weakness (Fox 2). Several organizations are working within Mozambique to make healthcare more accessible and affordable with one of many goals is to lower maternal and infant mortality rates.

As in all Southern African countries, HIV/AIDS plagues Mozambique. Many sources, including one by the CIA World Factbook, estimate the HIV/AIDS prevalence in Mozambique to be nearly 14% of the population (CIA), although certain areas in the Central region have rates of 37.3% (Da Silva 35). There is virtually no treatment available in Mozambique for the disease. People who are infected with HIV/AIDS typically die of tuberculosis or from malaria or dehydration due to severe malnourishment and diarrhea (McGeary 37). Literally, a generation is dying, leaving behind the old and the children. When mothers die, the bulk of the burden of raising their children has fallen onto grandmothers and to female relatives. Obviously, in any poor country, food acquisition is difficult. Because of AIDS, the challenge has become even greater to just feed people. Women are often working even harder and longer hours just to produce enough food for the family to consume. Many women, in order to provide for themselves or their families, often in the absence of their husband, turn to sex work. The central region of Mozambique has an elevated AIDS rate mostly because a major trade route cuts right thru it. Truckers are often said to be a major cause in the swift spread of AIDS (McGeary 40, 41). The harsh reality is that many sex workers will agree to have sex without a condom because their customers will pay double, in some cases, for it (McGeary 42). Women and girls, due partially to their lack of education, seems to know less about HIV and AIDS than their male counterparts (Crossette 1.6). More so, women more than men believe that they are not at risk for contracting the disease. Up to 2/3 of the women in Mozambique believe that they are not at risk even when they are sexually active (Crossette 1.6). There are many education and health programs in Mozambique that focus specifically on women and AIDS because women are contracting the disease at a rate far greater than men. Many believe that the disease can only be controlled when women have more power and more knowledge about the disease.

In many ways, despite efforts for development, Mozambique has held onto many traditions and many traditional ways of life. One such tradition is belief in the healing powers of the curandeiros, or traditional, spiritual healers. Many curandeiros are women and hold great prestige within a community. For many years, especially throughout the war, the government tried to limit and outlaw curandeiros and their practices. However, times have changed. The government is embracing curandeiros as a means of relaying safe-sex messages and messages about variety of other health issues (Swarns 14). For most people, a hospital is a day's journey by foot away and the expense of the hospital is often prohibitive (Da Silva 35). The cuandeiros, for many, are the only available source of health care. The traditional healers treat the patients at home and use herbs and plants that health officials in Mozambique say effectively treat opportunistic ailments, like diarrhea and pneumonia that afflict people with compromised immune systems. The whole scheme frees up hospital beds for other sick people and awards people higher levels of care than they would otherwise get (Swarns 14). The majority of people in Mozambique seek treatment from cuandeiros at some point. Now, the government is helping to train the cuandeiros to provide safe and accurate treatments.

Women in Mozambique have a long road ahead of them towards equality. There are still tremendous disparities between the labor of men and of women. Women still do not have the same access to education that men do. Women are virtually powerless in regards to negotiating sex. Yet, there is hope. Women have significant amounts of power and position within the FRELIMO government. Different organizations, such as the Mozambican Woman's Organization, are working to educate women and to provide for their wellbeing. There is a long way to go, but the climate is right for change. The FRELIMO political slogan A Luta Continua(The Struggle Continues) is still all too appropriate. The story of Mozambican women teaches us about the persistence of struggle, the possibility of creating a better life, and the necessity of continuing the fight for future generations.


Agência de Informação de Moçambique. Luisa Diogo Sworn Into Office. Maputo, Mozambique: February 19, 2004.

CIA, World Factbook. Mozambique. Washington, DC: December 18, 2003.

Crossette, Barbra. U.N. Finds AIDS Knowledge Still Lags in Stricken Nations. New York Times. New York, N.Y.: June 23, 2002, page1.6.

Da Silva, Terizinha. and Andrade, Ximena. Beyond Inequalities: Women in Mozambique. Harare, Zimbabwe: Southern African Research and Documentation Centre, 2000.

Finnegan, William. A Complicated War: The Harrowing of Mozambique. Los Angeles and Berkley: University of California Press, 1992.

Fox, Maggie. Reuters. Program to Train Health Workers Helps Moms. Chicago Tribune. Chicago, Illinois.: Sep 13, 2000, page 2.

Itano, Nicole. "Fighting Tradition, Girls Yearn to Learn; Mozambique's government has teamed up with private organizations to help educate the country's young women". Christian Science Monitor. Boston, Massachusetts. March 18, 2002, page 12.

McGeary, Johanna. "Death Stalks a Continent." Time Magazine. February 12, 2001: pg 26-54.

Sheldon, Kathleen E. Pounders of Grain: A History of Women, Work, and Politics in Mozambique. Portsmouth, New Hampshire: Heinemann, 2002.

Swarns, Rachel. Mozambique Enlists Healers in AIDS Prevention. New York Times. New York: Dec 6, 1999, page A.14