Early Marriage

A Regional Menace in Latin America

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Random Institute / Unsplash

“Child, Early and Forced Marriage” is a term that refers in particular to marriages and unions that take place before the age of 18. In the Latin American and Caribbean (LAC) region, the word “union” occurs frequently alongside the term “marriage”. It is used to reflect informal relationship agreements, neither documented nor recognized by the Church or the State. The informality of these unions in LAC makes it difficult to account for them or collect sufficient data to evidence this issue; it is difficult to call them out as a blatant violation of the human rights of adolescent girls.

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Child marriage and early unions mainly impact girls living in poor, rural, uneducated homes. Indeed, the highest proportion of marriages and unions in LAC involve adolescent girls, more often than not to men who are significantly older, more educated, and richer, compounding power inequities that subordinate these girls. Unfortunately, gender violence is not an uncommon occurrence in such situations.

Girls in early unions often do not have access to contraceptives and their older partners invariably decide on whether and when to use contraceptives.

The impact of child marriage on the national economies of countries is significant, and the spiral of poverty is further exacerbated by early marriage. UNFPA has created a model which measures the financial impact of adolescent pregnancy; it was recently presented in a webinar on the impact of child pregnancy in El Salvador, hosted by the regional LAC Forum of the Reproductive Health Supplies Coalition. This webinar is part of a Spanish language series hosted by the LAC Forum, exploring the impact of child marriage and early unions in Mexico, in Peru, and in the Dominican Republic.

The series shares the results of research carried out in indigenous communities out by Plan International and UNFPA, involving interviews with girls, members of their families and communities, and government and civil society leaders and experts. The vignettes and interview questions used in the study highlight key themes of sexuality, choice, decision-making, femininity and masculinity, the transition to adulthood, schooling, employment opportunities, and violence.

Most LAC countries have well-developed legislation prohibiting the practice of early child marriages and unions, but the legislation has many loopholes that allow — if not condone — the practice; governments do not prosecute the practice if the parents of the girl approve of it. So in most areas, the practice is culturally and socially acceptable, and in certain situations, it is even promoted and supported. Marriage is for some communities a way to reduce the financial burden of having one extra member in the family. Social norms need to change at a faster pace.

For information on the work carried out by LAC Forum members in early marriage and unions, please contact RHSC’s Regional Director, Milka Dinev at mdinev@rhsupplies.org.

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