Promundo Study on Child and Adolescent Marriage in Brazil Highlights Importance of Gender Equality Education to Protect Girls’ Rights

Covers of Portuguese edition of "She goes with me in my boat."

Promundo launched the report “She goes with me in my boat”: Child and Adolescent Marriage in Brazil in September in Brasilia, presenting data on a practice that has been absent from many Brazilian discussions.

Global conversations around child and adolescent marriage largely focus on hotspot areas, such as those in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, and depict the practice as a ritualistic ceremony in which marriage to older men is imposed upon young girls. In Brazil, however, unions involving girls under the age of 18 appear to be mostly informal and consensual in nature. Men are 9 years older, on average, than the girls in these child and adolescent unions, which are perceived by girls and their families as offering stability in settings of economic insecurity and limited opportunities.

The study, conducted by Promundo in partnership with the Federal University of Pará and Plan International Brazil, investigates attitudes and practices around child marriage in Maranhão and Pará, two Brazilian states with highest prevalence of the practice.

According to the 2010 Brazilian Census, 88,000 girls and boys are in consensual, civil, and/or religious marriages in Brazil. About 11 percent of Brazilian women aged 20-24 were married before age 15, and 36 percent were married before age 18 (National Household Sample Survey, PNAD). Despite these significant numbers, few policies or studies have addressed the issue of child and adolescent marriage in Brazil.

The launch event at the UNICEF headquarters in Brasilia incorporated a panel discussion, moderated by Benedito Santos of the Catholic University of Brasilia. The panel included Tatiana Moura, executive director of Promundo, and Mario Volpi, coordinator of UNICEF’s adolescent citizenship program. Two regional research coordinators from Maranhão and Pará – Luca Sinesi, from Plan International, and Lucia Lima, from the Federal University of Pará – presented reports from the field; UNFPA Guatemala researcher José Roberto Luna presented related research carried out in Guatemala and El Salvador. Promundo’s Alice Taylor, the study’s research coordinator, presented the general survey findings.

The research finds that the motivations behind child and adolescent marriage in the settings studied consist of several factors, including: desire to deal with an unwanted pregnancy; desire, by family members, to control girls’ sexuality; search for financial security; girls’ desire to leave the home and family oppression; girls’ desire for greater autonomy; and the desire of men to marry younger girls.

These motivations are related to gender stereotypes that prescribe distinct social roles for men and women, reserving the role of being an active provider for men, and the role of caretaking (in the home and for the family) for women, who are expected to prioritize their husbands’ needs above their own.

The research also finds that child and adolescent marriages are marked by unequal power relations between husband and wife, leading to consequences such as educational setbacks; restricted employment opportunities; early pregnancy and related maternal, newborn and child health problems; limitations to girls’ mobility; and exposure to gender-based violence.

“Many [girls] think that marriage will give them the freedom that they don’t have in their families, but the research shows that marriage only increases this control over them,” Alice Taylor said.

Thus, education for gender equality is an important strategy for the protection girls’ and adolescents’ rights; however, gender equality education is currently being threatened by bill PL 2731/2015, a piece of legislation introduced in Brazil’s Chamber of Deputies in August. The bill amends Brazil’s National Education Plans to “prohibit of the use of gender ideology in national education.” According to the bill, schools should not have a role in “indoctrinating” children’s conceptions of gender and sexuality, and the proposed legislation instructs Brazilian states, the federal district, and municipalities to tailor their education plans according to this logic.

During the launch event, girls’ agency (i.e. individuals’ decision-making power as subjects of rights) in marriage was an important topic of discussion. Benedito Santos focused on the conditions that cause girls and adolescents to choose marriage, as well as the rights that are violated in such cases. Class and race intersections must be taken into account when it comes to this practice, he asserted, since child and adolescent marriages are most prevalent among socially and economically vulnerable populations.

Adolescent girls’ lack of substantial options and their high vulnerability, which the study found to be factors that motivate child and adolescent marriages, drive us to question the role that child and adolescent rights organizations are – and should be – playing to reduce this practice. Lucia Lima, field researcher in Pará, pointed out that, in some interviews, girls said that they married to “get out of” of school. She continued, “As an educator, I myself am asking: ‘what type of school is it that we are offering to our children and adolescents?’”

UNICEF’s Mario Volpi presented education for gender equality and for girls’ empowerment as an important means of combatting child and adolescent marriage – and its harmful consequences. “We need to reframe [men’s and women’s] roles in society – and not just at the individual or family level. We need to generate a counter-trend [in gender relations] and, above all, empower girls,” he said.

Promundo’s Tatiana Moura discussed the need to invest in policies that engage girls and boys in questioning and re-envisioning gender norms; this study is the first step toward more gender-transformative research and future interventions, she said.

Read the full report here.

back to news index