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Dominican Republic takes steps to ban child marriage

The Dominican Republic’s decision to close a loophole in marriage law which allowed girls to be wed before the age of 18 is a massive step forward in the fight for girls’ rights.

Schoolgirl from Dominican Republic

The country’s parliament voted for the change in the law on Tuesday 30 May following a period of review that saw a girls-led nationwide campaign supported by Plan International. The law change will now have to be approved by the country’s Senate, where a decision is expected imminently.

Although the minimum age for marriage in the Dominican Republic is 18, the loophole meant that – with parental and judicial permission – a 13-year-old girl could be forced to marry a man twice, or even three times, her age.

Consent from child not previously required

The circumstances under which such a union could be granted were up to a local judge. Consent from the child – whose life would be changed forever by this decision – was not required.

It is a momentous day for girls’ rights in the Dominican Republic. This decision... will help save the lives and futures of hundreds of thousands of girls.

Today’s announcement is the first step in the approvals process. The next is for the law to be approved by the Senate – a decision that is expected to be taken imminently.    

Aracelis De Los Santos, Acting Country Director for Plan International in the Dominican Republic, said:

“It is a momentous day for girls’ rights in the Dominican Republic. This decision is a bold step to end child marriage and will help save the lives and futures of hundreds of thousands of girls.”

Child marriage is a serious problem in the Dominican Republic. The country’s national statistics reveal that 37 per cent of women aged 20 to 49 were married before the age of 18. However, recent research by Plan International reveals that this figure reaches as high as 50 per cent in rural areas such as the El Valle and Enriquillo regions.

These findings were published by Plan International in March and played a key role in bringing about the change in the law that was announced today. 

Prevalent in poor and rural communities

“Child marriage is a harmful practice: if a girl gets married before the age of 18 she is more likely to drop out of school, more likely to become pregnant and more likely to become a victim of domestic and sexual abuse,” said Ms De Los Santos. 

“On top of this, she has limited opportunities to earn a living for her family and is likely to be trapped in poverty for a lifetime. It is, therefore, a violation of a girl’s fundamental human rights to health, education, wellbeing and opportunity, and there are absolutely no circumstances under which it should be acceptable.”

Ms De Los Santos said with the law in place, efforts must be redoubled to end child marriage.

“Although today’s news is cause for celebration, it is only the first of many steps to come. It is one thing to get the law changed, but it is quite another to eliminate the practice from the society where we know from our own research and experience that it is deeply entrenched,” she said. 

Helping girls realise their right to decide

Plan International’s experience of working in local communities shows that many parents place less value on girls and view child marriage as a means of reducing the financial burden on the family, especially if they are poor.

We will continue working with girls themselves to help them realise their true worth and to understand that they have the potential to achieve great things.

In addition, there are situations where girls themselves see marriage as a means of escape. “If girls experience domestic violence at home, they believe that life will be better if they get married – when in reality they often just move from one violent domestic situation to another,” said Ms De Los Santos.

“So there is a lot for us still to do to help girls realise their rights here in the Dominican Republic. The reform announced today must be accompanied by a comprehensive public policy and a budget aimed at eradicating child marriage. Our next steps as an organisation will be to ensure that child marriage is included in the penal code and to continue with our public awareness campaign to strengthen child protection networks and help people understand that child marriage is a crime.

“Most importantly, however, we will continue working with girls themselves to help them realise their true worth and to understand that they have the potential to achieve great things.” 

Read more about our work to put an end child marriage around the world.