HAVANA, July 2nd The lockdown that most of humankind has had to experience to try and slow the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, is standing in the way of interventions that are carried out worldwide to bring an end to child marriage, and this might lead to a considerable rise in child marriages between 2020 and 2030.
“Today, 33,000 girls under-18 will find themselves forced to marry; generally-speaking, their husbands are men who are a lot older than them,” the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) announced in its annual report about the State of World Population 2020, presented in New York on June 29th.
While a group of countries have been ammending their legislation, figures prove that a lot more needs to be done than just passing laws.
Like in the case of other toxic practices, including female genital mutilation, “the underlying causes [need to be] tackled, especially gendered norms,” Natalia Kanem, the executive director of the UN agency said, when presenting this report.
A study quoted by UNFPA estimates that COVID-19 could shoot up the number of child marriages by 13 million, globally, as a result of delayed interventions, sexual and reproductive health services being shut down, economic downturn and, as a result, an increase in poverty levels.
This setback will have a special impact on Latin America and the Caribbean, the only region in the world where the prevalence of this phenomenon hasn’t changed in any way over the past 25 years.
One out of every four girls in the region marries or lives with a partner before she turns 18 years old, and this figure stands at one in every three girls in some countries, the annual report revealed, under the name: “Against my will: Challenging practices that put women and girls at risk and stand in the way of equality.”
This year, on World Population Day, July 11th, it will go over issues that are still pending from the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development, in regard to reproductive health and gender equaity, with a special commitment to erradicating child marriage and the slow steps in this process.
According to the UN, child marriage includes every union, formal or informal, that involves a person under the age of 18.
Sources from the United Nations International Children’s Fund (UNICEF), estimate that if things continue as they are, the region will show higher rates by 2030, only being beaten by Sub-Saharan Africa.
“Fathers and mothers need to understand the importance of standing up to these practices and child marriage,” Harold Robinson said, UNFPA’s regional director for Latin American and the Caribbean, during a virtual press conference held at the agency’s headquarters in Panama City, on Monday 29th, for Latin American press.
Robinson mentioned at least 19 toxic practices, which range from virginity tests, female genital mutilation to the preference for baby boys, and the 2020 report frames them as customs that cause irreversible damage and undermine girls’ rights worldwide.
“In Mexico, in spite of there being laws that establish that children cannot get married before they turn 18 years old, the same laws also force us to observe the use and traditions of indigenous populations,” Martha Canseco said, president of the AC Independent TV project, based in Pachuca, 92 kms away from Mexico DF.
A women’s rights activist, Canseco explained over the phone how “by respecting use and tradition in indigenous areas, girls are married very young because they represent an economic burden for parents, who seek to delegate this responsibility to somebody else. Of course, there is no guarantee that the girl will be treated well.”
“In non-indigenous areas, the problem is structural in the same way. If the rapist of a girl is willing to marry her, the rape isn’t considered a crime. There are cases of parents exchanging their daughter for a crate of beer or liquor,” Canseco states, convinced that “laws won’t be good for anything if patriarchal structures remain intact.”
After this social phenomenon, the gender and communications expert believes that a series of different causes also come into play, such as “poverty, marginalization, a lack of opportunities, gender roles and stereotypes, zero respect for girls’ sexual and reproductive rights and, of course, violence.”
What about Cuba
Child marriage still happens in Cuba, but in different circumstances. A long-awaited new Family Code will eliminate the exceptional authorization of allowing girls to marry after they turn 14 years old, and boys after they turn 16. However, like in Mexico, legal reforms won’t be enough to put an end to this phenomenon.
“Girls don’t marry here. They go to live with a man much older than them. They drop out of school and begin to rear children. It’s something that the population sees as natural and people who reach 19 years old without leaving home or having a baby are even criticized,” Marielis Diaz told IPS over the phone, from a town in the Sierra Maestra, some 800 kms away from Havana.
“Health services are still open and running even during this pandemic, but you have to go down to the city and there isn’t any public transport. If it was hard to get there before, just imagine what it’s like now,” Diaz said, a health activist who has observed a link between marriage and teenage pregnancy and limited options for development.
“Sometimes, they have nothing else to do,” she said.
One of the contradictions that has stopped this Caribbean island from taking on a more direct approach to tackle this problem, is that society believes that childhood ends when you reach adolescence, against the definition outlined in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which includes the concept that childhood applies to “every human being under the age of 18.”
According to UNFPA, developing countries in the South, almost 90% of teenage pregnancies happen with girls who are already married. In other cases, the causality is inverted and first pregnancies are the result of sexual relations before the time of union, be this a formal or informal union.
Gender norms established at home, within their own families, sexual double standards and control over girls’ sexuality, as well as other expressions of gender inequality, force teenagers in the region to get married or live with an older man, interrupting their studies with the consequences this has on their own autonomy in the future.
In Cuba, where public education is compulsory until you are 15 years old, marriage is one of the three top causes of dropping out of secondary education, according to the Ministry of Education.
“We can’t say that these toxic practices don’t exist in the societies we live in (…), they exist everywhere. Of course, they manifest themselves differently and practices might be different,” Neus Bernabeu, UNFPA’s advisor for Latin America, said during the regional virtual press conference.
She believes the report is an opportunity to highlight other problems such as incest, virginity tests and the forced sterilization of physically handicapped girls.