Time to Get Serious about Child Marriage in Latin America

When Honduras parliamentarians this week unanimously passed a bill making child marriage illegal, they took leadership on an issue that deserves urgent attention in Latin America. As momentum builds across the globe to end this abusive practise, Latin America is lagging.

Governments – including Latin American governments – have committed under the United Nations sustainable development goals to eliminate child, early and forced marriage by 2030.  Germany, Malawi, Nepal, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, as well as several US states have recently passed laws cracking down on child marriage. Many countries are developing plans for how to end child marriage by 2030.

Latin America has not followed suit - and that’s not because there isn’t a problem there. The region has alarmingly high rates of child marriage. According to UNICEF, in five countries at least 30 percent of girls marry before the age of 18; Nicaragua has the highest rate, at 41 percent, and the others are Brazil, Dominican Republic, Guatemala, and Honduras. In 11 more countries—Belize, Bolivia, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guyana, Mexico, Panama, and Uruguay—between 20 and 30 percent of girls marry before age 18. These rates rival those in high prevalence countries in Africa and Asia, where more attention has been paid to the issue. Several other countries, including Argentina, Chile and Venezuela, are among the minority of countries not providing data on child marriage to UNICEF.

Latin America is the only region with a high rate of child marriage where there has not been a significant decline in child marriage over the last 30 years. Of the other four countries with rates over 30 percent, all except Guatemala permit marriage before age 18 with parental consent, sometimes as early as 14. Of the eleven countries with rates of child marriage between 20 and 30 percent, eight still legally permit child marriage, typically with parental consent.

Ending child marriage is urgent because it is deeply harmful to children everywhere. Married children often drop out of school, and are locked in poverty as a result. Married girls often become pregnant soon after marriage and early pregnancy involves serious health risks for pregnant girls and their babies. Girls who marry earlier are at higher risk of domestic violence than women who marry as adults.

Enforcing the new law in Honduras  - which replaces one permitting children age 16 and older to marry with permission from their parents - will be the next important step. Too many countries have good laws on the books but a fail to enforce them.

For the many other countries in Latin America that need urgently to end child marriage, it is time to follow Honduras’ lead.

Honduras has joining the growing, global movement to relegate the harmful practise of child marriage to the past. Let’s hope other countries across Latin America will follow suit.