Guatemala made history on 17 August, when it became the fourth country in Latin America to enforce an outright ban on child marriage in a single year.
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 aged 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 were at the discrepancy of a judge, but could lead to a 16-year-old girl being forced to marry a man 3 times her age – a clear violation of her rights.
Devastating impact of child marriage
“Child marriage has a devastating impact on the lives of children – particularly girls. A girl who is married before the age of 18 is more likely to drop out of school, to become a child mother, to die during pregnancy or childbirth, and to be trapped in a lifetime of poverty,” says Emma Puig de la Bella Casa, Plan International’s Head of Gender Equality in Latin America.
it is now only a matter of time before other countries in the region follow suit and start putting girls first.
“Her hopes and dreams are limited by the practice, and she is also more likely to face domestic and sexual violence. It is a gross violation of her fundamental human rights, and there are absolutely no circumstances under which it should be acceptable.”
In rural Guatemala, 53% of women aged 20-24 were 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 last week.
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) who had taken similar action on the issue earlier in the year.
Girls and women call for change
According to Puig de la Bella Casa, the momentum that is spreading across the region is down to the fact that girls themselves have been at the heart of the campaign.
“A wave of optimism is spreading across Latin America, where we are steadily moving girls’ rights up the international agenda,” she says. “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.
“As we’ve seen with movements such as #niunamenos, the women of Latin America have had enough. For too long, the region has dragged its feet over issues related to violence against women and harmful practices such as child marriage. It’s been a long fight, but we’re beginning to make some headway and, through our hard work, governments and policy makers are slowly but surely realising that the laws and practices currently in place are limiting, rather than protecting, the lives of the next generation.”