We often hear about the horrors of child marriage in Africa and Asia. We’ve even began to learn about how it’s also a problem in the United States and in Europe. However, I believe that child marriage is still not being fully recognised as a major problem in Latin America and the Caribbean.

The rates of child marriage in the region are alarming. According to UNICEF, in five countries (Nicaragua, Brazil, Dominican Republic, Guatemala, and Honduras) at least 30 percent of girls marry before the age of 18. In more than 11 countries, among them Bolivia, Colombia, Cuba, Ecuador, El Salvador, Mexico, and Panama, between 20 and 30 percent of girls marry before they turn 18.

According to a Girls Not Brides report from August 2017:

  1. 23% of women aged 20-24 in Latin America and the Caribbean were married by age 18 and 5% by age 15
  2. The region hosts one of the top 20 countries with the highest prevalence of child marriage (Nicaragua has the 17th highest rate) and three with the highest burden of child marriage (Brazil has the 4th highest and Mexico the 8th highest burden of women married before 18. Colombia has the 20th highest burden for marriage before 15).

Child marriage affects mostly girls in rural areas, leading them to become victims of early pregnancies, setbacks in their education, gender-based violence and abuse. Some of the causes of this problem are discriminatory social norms against girls, poverty, lack of comprehensive sexual health education, and high rates of sexual violence and teenage pregnancies.

Furthermore, the region is the least likely to see a significant change in rates of child marriage because of the limited data available on the issue. Especially in countries like Argentina, Chile, and Venezuela, who don’t provide any data on the issue, the scale of the practice in the region is probably underestimated. Latin America is the only region that hasn’t seen a decline in child marriage in the last 30 years.  

Thankfully, we’re starting to see some hope. This summer four countries passed legislation against this harmful practice. With Honduras leading the way in Central America, Trinidad and Tobago, El Salvador, and Guatemala, with the support of organizations like UN Women, UNICEF and UNFPA, changed the legal minimum age for marriage to 18 years old.

We all know that laws mean nothing if they are not properly enforced and that laws can’t automatically change cultures. Change won’t happen overnight, but these countries have taken the first step. They are moving forward in the right direction and will hopefully continue to make efforts to end child marriage. Legislation is just the beginning.

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