NAMPULA, Mozambique - Armed with a megaphone, mask and gloves, Denardina Mussa, 25, is on a mission: to encourage women and girls to report violence during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

Ms. Mussa started working as an activist five years ago. She had heard of many girls who were raped, forced into an early union or murdered in her province of Nampula, Mozambique, and she decided to act. 

“We have dissuaded families that were about to force their underaged daughters into a union" - Denardina Mussa, activist

Last year, she joined a team of more than 50 female activists at the Spotlight Initiative-supported organization Ophenta who conduct door-to-door campaigns to educate communities about sexual and gender-based violence. These door-knocking campaigns are currently suspended to slow the spread of COVID-19, but activists like Ms. Mussa are determined to reach communities, no matter what. They now walk or drive through the city’s neighbourhoods with megaphones, disseminating messages on preventing and reporting sexual violence and early unions. Activists also share phone numbers for hotlines and distribute leaflets to inform women about where to seek support and services.

Mass media communication is critical during a crisis, but it is not always the most effective way to reach groups with limited access to technology. With megaphones, activists know they can communicate with different groups, including women and girls, in local languages.

Ophenta activists take to the streets with their message. Photo courtesy of Ophenta.

Changing one mind at a time
Fear for her own safety and resistance from the communities are the hardest parts of the job, says Ms. Mussa. “Many people don’t want to acknowledge sexual violence,” she explains. 

“We receive threats of rape in the streets,” says another activist, Shamita Martins, 22. But this doesn’t stop them. Community leaders trained by Ophenta on preventing gender-based violence volunteer to escort activists like Ms. Mussa around their neighbourhoods to help them stay safe and show support for the activists’ message.  

"Sexual and domestic violence is common and tolerated here due to ignorance, but now we are vigilant”  - Carlos António Dinis, community leader

Nampula province has the largest population in Mozambique and 62 per cent of girls here are forced into a union before 18, well above the national average of 48 per cent. 

“Sexual and domestic violence is common and tolerated here due to ignorance, but now we are vigilant,” says Carlos António Dinis, 64, one of 35 community leaders trained last year.

Social change is slow, but Ms. Mussa knows she is sowing seeds for future generations and already sees some changes. “We have dissuaded families that were about to force their underaged daughters into a union, and these girls were re-enrolled in schools,” says Ms. Mussa. 

She also helps people understand that there are laws protecting women and girls against violence and early unions. “Our people are starting to realize that if they commit those crimes, they can end up in jail,” said Omar Abacar, 55, another community leader.
 

Left to right: Maria Bragança, Denardina Mussa and Shamita Martins are Ophenta activists who work in some of the most violent neighbourhoods around Nampula City. These days, they perform their work while social distancing. Photo: UNICEF/Ricardo Franco

A mask and a message
Ms. Mussa also takes part in COVID-19 prevention campaigns in public transport terminals, distributing masks to women, children and older people. With each mask, she delivers a vital message: “Use this mask to protect yourself from COVID-19, not to stay silent. Violence is a crime – report it!” 

Last year, Ophenta activists sensitized over 3,700 people in Nampula City. They are among the more than 29,000 people across three provinces who were reached by Spotlight Initiative-supported grassroots interventions. These interventions inform communities about gender-based violence and early unions, as well as existing response services.

Information in turn boosts the demand for support services. To ensure that women and girls experiencing violence continue to access life-saving care during the pandemic, the Spotlight Initiative is equipping government teams in the health, social action, police and justice sectors with personal protective equipment and hygiene materials, providing cellphones, vehicles and mobile clinics to public institutions, as well as supporting online training to service providers.

The Spotlight Initiative is a global partnership between the European Union and the United Nations to end all forms of violence against women and girls. In Mozambique, the Spotlight Initiative is led by the Government under the headship of the Ministry of Gender, Child and Social Action. It is implemented over a four-year period (2019-2022) with a $40 million commitment by the EU, focusing on the priority areas of ending sexual and gender-based violence, eliminating early marriage and promoting women and girls’ sexual and reproductive rights.

*Ophenta (which means “to love” or “to care for” in Emakhuwa language) is a Nampula-based association that supports vulnerable women and girls. Under the Spotlight Initiative, Ophenta conducts social mobilization interventions – such as community theatre and campaigns in bars, markets and public buses – to educate communities about sexual and gender-based violence. Ophenta is part of the Consortium Against Sexual Violence, a partnership of seven women’s organizations working to prevent sexual and gender-based violence under the Spotlight Initiative.

By Leonor Costa Neves. Lead photo: UNICEF/Ricardo Franco.