The world isn’t paying enough attention to Latin America’s child-bride problem

Schoolgirls talk near a fountain at the Parque Central in Guatemala City. In Guatemala, 30% of women are married by the age of 18.
Schoolgirls talk near a fountain at the Parque Central in Guatemala City. In Guatemala, 30% of women are married by the age of 18.
Image: Reuters/Daniel Leclair
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Over the past decade, world leaders and human-rights activists alike have increasingly recognized that the practice of child marriage undermines development and stability. This is especially true in regions like sub-Saharan Africa, where Niger claims the highest rate of child marriage globally—at 75%—as well as in South Asia, where India is home to about one third of the world’s known child brides.

Less common, however, are efforts to combat this practice in Latin America, despite high numbers in the region: According to a report launched in July 2015 by Promundo, a Brazil-based non-governmental organization (NGO), Brazil is ranked fourth in the world in terms of absolute numbers of girls married or cohabitating by age fifteen. More than 870,000 women ages 20 to 24 years are married by age 15, and about three million—or 36%—will be married by 18.

Despite these stark numbers, Brazil hardly registers on the international agenda as a hotspot for child marriage, and the subject is largely absent from national research and policy discussion.

One reason for this could be the sheer size of Brazil’s population, which is the fifth largest in the world. Given the overall number of people in the country, the absolute number of child marriages represents a smaller portion of the population than in most places where this practice is considered to be a serious challenge. In addition, informal unions—or cohabitations—are common in Brazil and many other countries in Latin America, which also helps mask the problem, as these unions often are not considered to be “marriage.”

The practice of child marriage also has been overlooked in Central America, where institutionalized racism, poverty, ambiguous laws, and lack of opportunity fuel high rates in rural communities.

For example, notwithstanding a legal prohibition against marriage before age eighteen in Oaxaca, Mexico, in 2010, 12% of adolescent girls 15 to 17 were married through formal or informal unions, and about 54% of these girls already had at least one child. In Guatemala, 30% of girls were married by 18 nationwide, but in rural communities, this percentage nearly doubled to 53%.

In an effort to combat the widespread belief among poor, rural, and indigenous communities that child marriage is a route out of poverty, some NGOs are working with communities in Latin America to shift norms and create safe spaces for adolescent girls. One community-based program led by the Population Council, called “Abriendo Oportunidades” (“opening opportunities”) works with indigenous girls to foster financial literacy and self-esteem, promote sexual and reproductive health, and discuss topics like marriage. The program has reached nearly eight thousand indigenous girls since 2004 and provided them with alternatives to early marriage. According to an evaluation conducted in 2011, 97% of girls participating in the program remained unmarried throughout its duration.

As governments determine whether to include a target on ending child marriage by 2030 in the Sustainable Development Goals currently under negotiation at the United Nations, incorporating experiences from Latin America will be critical. To achieve this ambitious target, we need to be clear-eyed about every region where child marriage takes place. Engaging with Latin America on this global issue will be critical to finally bringing this harmful practice to an end.