For 17 years, Charlienne lived the horror of witnessing her father assault her mother on a day to day basis. Now, she’s married with a child, but with the support of Plan International, she’s determined not to get trapped in the same cycle of violence.
“I didn’t want to get married so young. I wanted to live by myself,” she said. “Then I met my husband. I was 16. He was my first boyfriend. Four months later, I was pregnant.”
Settling under the shade of a tree in her backyard in São Luís – the capital of the northern region of Maranhão in Brazil – the 17-year-old opened up about what it’s like to grow up in a community characterized by violence and teen pregnancy.
“I was so scared to tell my mother and father about my pregnancy – nobody was expecting it,” she said. “I thought my father might become violent and shut me out of the family.”
Charlienne lived through a very challenging childhood, witnessing extreme domestic violence with her father regularly trying to assault her mother.
“My father was always rude,” she said. “He still is. He was verbally violent and he’d beat my mother. I would try to separate them when they were fighting. There was so much jealousy.
“When they divorced, I became sick. It affected me because to see a life like this is not good for anyone. Even though I didn’t want them to get divorced, I knew it was for the best.”
Like many other teenage mothers in her community, becoming a mother so early was not the life Charlienne was expecting, but it is a situation she has come to accept. She now lives with her 19-year-old husband.
Brazil is ranked fourth in the world in the number of girls married or living with a partner, according to research conducted by Plan, Pro Mundo and Brazil's Federal University of Para. In the northern region of Maranhão, this practice is common. Scores of girls are married or are living with a partner by the age of 15, while the 2010 Government census revealed 877,000 women ages 20 to 24 were married by 15.
In Brazil, early marriage is firmly linked to gender-based violence, as it drives the choices girls make. Machismo and violence are so deeply entrenched that they are accepted as the norm in many communities.
“Plan International Brazil’s research reveals that for many girls, finding a partner is the easiest and only way to escape their violent daily life,” Plan International Brazil’s Program Director Luca Sinesi said. “It’s not necessarily their choice, but it is their only option.”
While teenage pregnancy is a driving factor for early marriage, which can lead to girls dropping out of school, Charlienne was determined to do things differently.
“I never stopped school. I continued to go even when I was pregnant,” she said. “After my baby was born, I returned to school after one month. However, I couldn’t have done it without my mother- in-law and mother, who helped take care of the baby.”
Charlene’s relationship with her husband is a work in progress. The teenager has learned a lot from her personal experiences with her parents. Charlienne is determined not to relive the life of her mother.
“If my husband was to beat me, I would go to my mother’s house and report him to the police,” she said. “Violence against women should not be tolerated.”
With support from Plan, Charlienne has been learning how to stay safe and how to combat violence in her community.
“Plan International Brazil has taught me about violence against women, sexual violence, and violence amongst teenagers,” she said. “I’ve learned many good things and made new friends. I now feel confident to speak up for my rights.”
Charlienne feels strongly about the issue of violence in her community and has taken on a champion’s role to educate other girls and women about their rights. She also doesn’t shy away from reminding men in the community about the importance of equality.
“Whatever I learn from Plan, I pass it on to my family and friends,” she said. “It is not good to keep the information to myself, so I like to share so others can learn as well – including men.”
Above all else, Charlienne refuses to be restricted by her marriage and remains hopeful.
“I want to finish my studies and then train to be a psychologist,” she said. “I hope the future is going to be good for me – and for the rest of Brazil. I want to see an end to machismo, an end to violence against women, and an end to rape.”