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close this bookThe Reintegration of War-Affected Youth: The Experience of Mozambique (International Labour Organization, 1997, 52 p.)
close this folder2. Background: The impact of armed conflict on youth in Mozambique
View the document2.1. The long years of war
View the document2.2. The legacy of the conflict

2.1. The long years of war

Shortly after independence was achieved in 1975, Mozambicans became embroiled in a savage internal struggle between the government of FRELIMO1 and the armed opposition group of RENAMO.2 The struggle was to last 16 years and to cost hundreds of thousands of lives. Against this backdrop of savagery, millions of children and youth have grown up in Mozambique knowing little else but the horrors of war. For Mozambican youth living - and dying - in the midst of armed conflict, the choices were clear: fight; flee; or risk life, limb and liberty trying to eke out a meagre existence amid the minefields and madness.

1 Frente de Liberta de Mozambique.

2 Resisten Nacional de Mozambique.

Thousands of youth, including an unknown number of young women, joined the armed forces of government or opposition and many became active participants in the conflict. Some did so willingly, while others were pressed into service, sometimes at the barrel of a gun. It has been reported that in some instances, children were abducted and then forced to kill or torture friends or even family to ensure that their links with the community were completely broken.

Once enrolled, life in the army tended to be harsh: discipline was frequently merciless, punishment severe. Thus, in addition to the threat of death or injury fighting in the front line, recruits ran the frequent risk of physical or sexual abuse at the hands of their own side. In the bitterness of the struggle for supremacy, appalling atrocities were committed against civilians and other soldiers alike. The impact of abuses of the fundamental norms of humanity will take decades to expunge from the collective psyche of all Mozambicans, both young and old. Moreover, a generation of young soldiers were deprived of access to basic education and health care.

As the war continued and hopes of peace withered with the untended crops, millions of Mozambicans fled into neighbouring Malawi, the United Republic of Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe. As refugees, daily life was difficult, but not impossible. Adequate schooling and health care was provided through the auspices of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and, in addition to Portuguese, many young Mozambican refugees were able to learn English in their countries of asylum. But being cut off from their homes and cultural heritages and frequently dependent on external aid, the young tended to be deprived of instruction in the life and work skills that are traditionally passed down from their parents. Girls became heads of households at increasingly younger ages and, charged with the responsibility of bringing up even younger siblings, themselves lost the chance of receiving an education.

Especially vulnerable were the internally displaced in Mozambique, bereft of the entitlement to protection and care accorded to refugees under international law, and without the benefit of an international agency mandated specifically to watch over their rights and interests. Inadequate food security; vulnerability to attack, forced recruitment, physical and sexual abuse and the dangers of land mines; and social and economic instability were the frequent realities for the millions of children and youth displaced within Mozambique. As is seen below, their situation in post-conflict Mozambique remains precarious.

The impact of armed conflict on Mozambican social infrastructure was equally dramatic. War destroyed more than 40 per cent of Mozambique's health centres between 1982 and 1986 and left two-thirds of the country's 2 million primary school age children without classrooms.3

3 UNICEF, State of the world's children 1996, Oxford, Oxford University Press, Dec. 1995.

Between 1980 and 1988, the lack of food, safe drinking water and adequate health care in war zones contributed to an estimated 490,000 child deaths in Mozambique.1

1 ibid.

2.2. The legacy of the conflict

The war in Mozambique finally ended in October 1992 with the signing of the General Peace Accord. But the legacy of the long years of conflict remains. Despite a number of valuable natural resources, such as coal, natural gas, titanium and a large fishing potential, Mozambique is today one of the world's poorest countries. More than 70 per cent of Mozambique's 16.5 million inhabitants live in absolute poverty and per capita gross national product was estimated in 1994 to be US$80.2 Despite abundant fertile agricultural land, agricultural production is no more than 75 per cent of its 1981 level, and grain has to be imported. Even in a good year such as 1996, the main problem was still selling surpluses. Poor roads, lack of transport and few shops meant that much of the surplus will rot or be sold extremely cheaply. Moreover, areas in the south where the harvest was poor will experience shortages.3 Industry operates at only 20 to 40 per cent of capacity.4 In 1996, the infant mortality rate was estimated to be between 140 and 173 per thousand, and the maternal mortality rate may be as high as 1,000 per 100,000.5

2 UNICEF, Children and women in Mozambique, information materials, Maputo, 1996, p. 1.

3 UNICEF, Mozambique situation update, May-July 1996, Maputo, undated. In addition, as a result of the difficulty of obtaining credit from banks, shopkeepers in rural areas are unable to buy the local produce and it is often exported, for example to Malawi.

4 United States Central Intelligence Agency information, Internet address:

5 UNICEF, op. cit.

In March 1996, the Minister of Labour in Mozambique, Guilherme Mavila, told the Assembly of the republic that the official unemployment rate (based on those registered unemployed) was 7.2 per cent, but admitted that the official figures were a gross underestimate.6 He thought that the real rate was in excess of 50 per cent of an economically active population of some 8.5 million. Every year, an additional 600,000 people join the labour market. The vast majority of those in work are self-employed or work in family businesses. Only one in 6 of the workforce is waged and just one in 125 is an employer.7 Approximately 40 per cent of the population live in the northern provinces of Nampula and Zambezia, which have the most fertile agricultural land. Tens of thousands of men living in the southern provinces have traditionally migrated to work on mines and farms in South Africa.

6 AIM Report, 26 Mar. 1996, Internet:

7 ibid.

Although the trade union movement in Mozambique lacks power and resources, there are two national trade unions in existence: OTM, the Organizaciondos Tralhadores de Mobique,8 historically with close links to the Government, and Sintigrim. OTM is particularly concerned with the consequences of privatization, which is causing employers to shed large numbers of workers. With particular regard to youth, OTM fears that many young people have been marginalized by society and are turning to drugs and criminality. It believes that this development can be ascribed, in part, to deficiencies in the demobilization and reintegration process.9

8 OTM groups together 13 separate organizations with a combined membership of 290,000.

9 Discussion with OTM officials, 5 Dec. 1996.

The legal minimum age for work in Mozambique is 15 and for hazardous work 18.1 Education is compulsory for every children between the age of 7 and 13.2 In spite of this legal requirement, however, in both rural and urban areas, an unknown, but substantial number of young Mozambican children, are working instead of attending school. Traditionally, children in Mozambique were involved in hunting and herding, but since the beginning of the 1990s, as the economic crisis deepened, children were put to work in other areas. In rural agricultural areas, children do weeding, pick cotton, sesame and sunflower seeds, and gather cashew nuts. In Maputo, children work as street vendors, bus ticket collectors, or workers at home-based industries. Thousands of children pour into the city everyday to compete to watch over parked cars, sell chewing gum, or fill a minibus with passengers. Some young vendors are contracted by established businesses to sell their products on the streets.3

1 International Labour Office, Child labour: Targeting the intolerable, ILO, Geneva, p. 40. Of the major ILO Conventions, Mozambique has ratified No. 105, which abolishes forced labour.

2 ibid.

3 AIM Report, op. cit.

Mozambique's deep-rooted problems notwithstanding, a general optimism does appear to pervade the country. The economic climate is better than it has been for many years, although some question whether the political structure is equal to the task of ensuring long-term growth and stability. Rising criminality, especially violent crime, directed against foreigners and Mozambicans alike, is an increasing concern, particularly in the overcrowded cities where job opportunities other than in the informal sector are scarce.

Thus, it is against the backdrop of long years of armed conflict and within an exacting climate - social, political and economic - that the success or failure of programmes supporting the reintegration of war-affected Mozambican youth must be judged.