The ‘hidden’ problem of child marriage in Latin America

Jo Griffin is a freelance journalist for the Guardian, Observer, BBC and Al-Jazeera. She has also worked as a journalist in Mexico, Central America and Brazil.

Picture: United Nations Population Fund

The recent decision to raise the age of marriage to 18 in Guatemala has put the spotlight on child marriage in a region where the practice is widespread but where it has remained under the radar – until now.

The vote by Guatemala’s Congress came shortly before the United Nations Population Fund convened a regional seminar in San Salvador last week to discuss early marriage, which, it said, is something that “people in many countries of the region believe happens elsewhere, and in certain communities is seen as inevitable”.

That statement reflects the twin challenges for those campaigning to end child marriage in a part of the world where it is both invisible and normalised.

Making it visible is seen as a first step to tackling a practice that leads adolescent girls to drop out of school and leaves them vulnerable to health and security risks.

Child marriage may be less detectable in Latin America than in Africa or Asia, but it is deeply entrenched, especially but not exclusively in rural areas and among indigenous communities.

According to UNICEF in 2014, Latin America and the Caribbean is the only region where child marriage is not on the decline – change is happening more slowly here than in other global “hotspots”.

In Latin America, nearly one in three girls are married off before they are 18.  In many Latin American countries, children can get married under 18, with the permission of parents or a judge.

A lack of data has meant that the full scope of the issue is just beginning to be understood. Latin America and the Caribbean is only region of the world where births to girls under 15 are on the rise but the link with child marriage has yet to be explored.

In the Dominican Republic and in Nicaragua, 41% of girls marry as children or adolescents; in Honduras, it is 34% and in Brazil, the number of girls in consensual unions is 36%, according to census data. In terms of absolute numbers, Brazil ranks fourth in the world for child marriage.

A recent report by the Instituto Promundo in Brazil broke fresh ground by examining the motivations for and consequences of child marriage in the country. Author Alice Taylor said: “This report challenges the assumption that child marriage only happens In Muslim countries.”

Picture: Casa Alianza

The report, which focused on the states of Para and Maranhao, challenged other assumptions too; it found that child marriage is not confined to rural areas and that often early unions are consensual; in Brazil, teenage girls are often coerced into marriage if they become pregnant but they opt to marry as an alternative to education, due to lack of opportunities or to escape violence at home.

Read more about the report on child marriage in Brazil

In Central America, NGOs reported earlier this year that in some areas gang violence is now fuelling child marriage as more girls seek to marry or move in with a gang member as a form of protection for them and their family.

“Being in a couple with a gang member may give the girl and her family some level of protection from one gang, but may make them more vulnerable to rival gangs,” the Thomson Reuters Foundation quoted Amanda Rives, Latin America advocacy director for World Vision, as saying.

Latin America and the Caribbean have some of the highest rates of violence against women in the world.

Early marriage is associated with violence in the home. Plan’s 2015 State of the World’s Girls report found that just over three in five girls (68%) worldwide agree that girls who marry young are likely to experience violence in their homes, with the figure rising to 70% of girls in Nicaragua. 

In such a context, it is not surprising that the recent ban marriage under 18 in Guatemala has been greeted with cautious optimism.

Fred Shortland, chief executive at NGO Casa Alianza, which works with vulnerable adolescents in Central America, said: “It’s a very important step but it is going to take time to have real practical impact due to deep rooted cultural influences, monitoring and enforcement.

“In addition, large numbers of girls and women have not been registered at birth, which raises the issue of age verification,” he said, pointing to a systemic difficulty that inevitably makes it harder to increase visibility of the issue.

Learn more about the effects of child marriage on education.