Recent legislative actions in four Latin American countries seek to ensure girls like Sonia, from Guatemala, can follow their own paths and marry when they choose.
Sonia grew up in a family of farmers in a rural area of Guatemala.
At 15, her cousin introduced her to her 25-year-old colleague. Her cousin had told him that Sonia was a good woman, was single, and would surely make him a good wife.
It wasn’t long before Sonia received a call from her cousin’s friend, who said that he was going to travel close to her village and would like to meet her.
“That scared me a lot,” she said. “I did not know him but he asked me to marry him. I wanted to continue to study, but here in the village, if people found out that I had said no, I would have been criticized because they would say that I wanted a disorderly life, which is not true.”
She married him and had her first child at age 16. When she was 21, she had two more.
In the future, however, stories like Sonia’s will be illegal. Guatemala made history in August when it became the fourth country in Latin America this year to enforce an outright ban on child marriage.
According to Plan International, this level of action on girls’ rights is unprecedented in a region where machismo is deeply entrenched within society and levels of violence against women and girls are among the highest in the world.
Although Guatemala outlawed child marriage in 2015, a loophole in its Civil Code remained, which made it possible for children ages 16 and 17 to get married if a judge considered the union to be in the “best interests” of the child.
These “best interests” were undefined and decisions were often made according to a judge’s discretion, but could lead to a 16-year-old like Sonia being forced to marry a man three times her age.
“Child marriage has a devastating impact on the lives of children – particularly girls,” said Emma Puig de la Bella Casa, Plan International’s head of gender equality in Latin America. “A girl who is married before the age of 18 is more likely to drop out of school, become a child mother, die during pregnancy or childbirth, and be trapped in a lifetime of poverty.”
In rural Guatemala, 53 percent of women aged 20-24 are married by the age of 18. Although the 2015 ban was intended to reduce this figure, because of the loophole, child marriages continued to be registered right up until the ban came into force.
The announcement was made moments after El Salvador also updated its child marriage law, joining Honduras and the Dominican Republic (pending approval by the Senate), which had taken similar action on the issue earlier in the year.
Although marriage below the age of 18 is illegal in El Salvador, the country’s family code made it possible for girls to be married off before this age under certain circumstances.
These circumstances meant that if a girl became pregnant at 13, for example, she could be forced to marry a man twice her age at the request of her parents or a judge. Her consent would not be required, despite the fact that the decision would change her life forever.
Similarly, lawmakers in Honduras’s National Congress voted unanimously in July to raise the minimum marriage age to 18 from 16 and remove a loophole that allowed children under 18 to get married with the permission of their parents.
Honduran girls supported by Plan International and its partner organizations UNICEF, the United Nations Population Fund, and UN Women have been campaigning for this loophole to be closed for the past two years.
“A wave of optimism is spreading across Latin America, where we are steadily moving girls’ rights up the international agenda,” said Bella Casa. “Too often, their needs and rights are just added on as an afterthought – if they are acknowledged at all – but Honduras, El Salvador, the Dominican Republic, and now Guatemala have all sat up and taken notice, and it is our firm belief that it is now only a matter of time before other countries in the region follow suit and start putting girls first.”
While legislation is an important step, girls will continue to have stories similar to Sonia’s – and Plan will continue to fight to ensure girls are choosing their own path forward.