Yes, Girls Do Marry as Children and Adolescents in Latin America

By Margaret E. Greene, Giovanna Lauro and Alice Taylor
This blog was originally published by the Inter-American Development Bank in Y si hablamos de igualdad.

An abstract teal and white image of a hand holding a toy boat.Most global discussions and actions around child and adolescent marriage focus on hotspot areas in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. In Latin America and the Caribbean, researchers and advocates have long studied adolescent pregnancy. But any critical discussion of marriage practices involving minors –which can occur as a result of early pregnancy, or indeed lead to early childbearing– has arisen only recently.

This invisibility of the practice in popular awareness stands in sharp contrast to the prevalence of child marriage in the region (where 29% of women under 18 are married or in union), where the highest prevalence rates exist in Brazil (36%), the Dominican Republic (41%), Nicaragua (41%) and Honduras (34%). Brazil is home to the highest absolute numbers of girls in child marriages in the region, and is estimated to be the fourth country in total numbers worldwide: 88,000 girls and boys ages 10-14 are in what the census categorizes as “consensual” (informal), civil and/or religious unions in Brazil.

What is behind these numbers? What are the motivations and consequences of these unions involving minors? Seeking to better understand the practice to be able to contribute to evidence-based programming and policies, Promundo conducted exploratory research that explores attitudes and practices surrounding child and adolescent marriage in Pará and Maranhão, two Brazilian states with highest prevalence.

The research finds a number of overlapping factors perpetuating the practice in Brazil. These include families’ desire to control girls’ sexuality and respond to a pregnancy, desire to protect family reputation, as well as desire to ensure the man’s financial support for the girl and the baby.

Among the consequences of child and adolescent marriage, the research found:

  • Early pregnancy and related maternal, newborn and child health problems
  • Educational setbacks
  • Limitations to girls’ social networks and mobility
  • Exposure to gender-based violence including a range of controlling and inequitable behaviors on the part of older husbands.

Marriage, a way to escape

The research also revealed findings that stand in contrast with what is observed about the practice in other regions of the world. Child marriages in the region can sometimes be understood as expressions of girls’ agency, which must be understood in the context of limited educational and employment opportunities.

For example, some girls wish to leave their households of origin when they experience childhood violence and abuse. Even though research participants communicated a lack of support for child marriage, the practice is generally perceived as a ‘least worst’ alternative in the context of an unappealing or out-of reach educational pathway. Child marriage is perpetuated by widespread gender-inequitable social norms.

The complexity of girls’ agency vis-à-vis child marriage – the fact that they choose unions that appear not to be good for them– should be further explored in future research in Brazil and in the rest of the Latin America. Another area of interest is the role of various religions in driving the pressures families put on girls. Finally, the role of men and boys as agents for ending child marriage is largely overlooked in research on child marriage, in the region and globally.

Access the executive summary (in Spanish, English, and Portuguese) here and the full report (in English, with Portuguese translation forthcoming) here.

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