Child, early and forced marriage and unions (CEFMU) happen in every country and in different contexts. However, in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) – where the history of colonialism means some communities continue to be marginalised because of their race or ethnicity – they are often treated as an exclusively Indigenous cultural practice.
This – as well as stigmatising Indigenous peoples and communities and ignoring girls’, adolescents’ and youth voices – masks the structural causes of the practice, and makes it difficult to propose solutions that go beyond prohibitive laws.
At Girls Not Brides: The Global Partnership to End Child Marriage, we think it’s important to support the Indigenous groups and organisations demanding responses and actions to address CEFMU. That’s why we joined the Foro Internacional de Mujeres Indígenas (FIMI) and the Enlace Continental de Mujeres Indígenas de las Américas (ECMIA) in a side event at the 21st Session of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues – the report from which has now been published – to raise child marriage as an issue that Indigenous communities have solutions to.
In this space, Indigenous adolescents, youth and women from Latin America and the Caribbean spoke about CEFMU in their communities, and made five recommendations for urgent action to address it:
1. Differentiate between child marriage and early and forced unions
In Latin America and the Caribbean, many countries have promoted legal reforms prohibiting child marriage, but have not implemented policies to prevent early and forced informal unions, or to support girls and adolescents who are already married.
In my country, child marriage is regulated, but early unions still exist and adult women and parents think it’s allowed.Naididili Pérez, Unión Nacional de Mujeres Kuna, Panamá
Since most unions are informal, we need to make them visible and study their root causes if we want to design policies to prevent them and support girls and adolescents who are already affected by them, but whose experiences are largely unacknowledged in the region.
“[In Guatemala] there have been legal changes, but informal unions persist, and this hinders policies and actions that transform girls’ lives.” Karla Rax from Girls Not Brides member organisation Na’Leb’ ak, Guatemala
2. Listen to Indigenous girls, adolescents and youth
Indigenous girls, adolescents and youth – including those affected by CEFMU – must be at the centre of discussions about their rights.
It’s important to have spaces for youth, and that their voices are heard.María Leticia Santis, Ch’ieltik, Mexico
Indigenous girls, adolescents and youth have knowledge and experiences to share with adults, organisations and institutions – they’re the ones who live and understand the issues that affect them.
“We should listen to our sisters and talk about CEFMU from a gender- and rights-based perspective, without falling into stigmatisation.” Elvira Pablo, Girls Not Brides, Latin America and the Caribbean team
The Indigenous women’s movement in Latin America and the Caribbean has come a long way in defending their rights. Their participation in decision making – incorporating an intercultural, rights- and gender-based approach – allows for the design of public policies to address CEFMU which do not reproduce stereotypes or criminalise their communities.
3. Generate more and better data
To address CEFMU, you need to know which girls and adolescents are most at risk, and where they are.
We need statistics to know how many girls and adolescents are in this situation, so we can support them.Naididili Pérez, Panamá
Countries still have trouble compiling and disaggregating data which makes the prevalence of CEFMU in Indigenous communities visible, and positions the issue as a priority on national agendas.
“UN agencies, particularly, UNICEF, should investigate more and use data to make recommendations to member states, because this is an issue that’s invisible at the local level,” Says Lucy Mulenkei, Vice President of FIMI.
The work of States, international and regional organisations and civil society in compiling, disaggregating and analysing data on CEFMU is essential to ensure support reaches the girls and adolescents who are most at risk.
4. Work must be led by and with communities
Work to address CEFMU should be done with and by communities, and should be led by those most affected. Conversations on issues related to CEFMU should also include community members like women leaders, authorities, community elders, parents, teachers and health care practitioners.
We have to work with women community leaders to reduce tolerance for forced unions, strengthen economic autonomy for girls, adolescents and women, and offer support and services in Indigenous languages.Karla Rax, Na’Leb’ ak, Guatemala
The recommendations of the UNFPII and other international bodies – and States’ commitments to addressing CEFMU – must be implemented at the national and community level with cultural relevance and the full participation of Indigenous girls, adolescents, youth and women.
International bodies and institutions should promote ways for communities to develop their own projects that respond to their needs and contexts.
"We need international bodies and organisations to keep working and supporting communities with education and access to sexual and reproductive rights," says Jaqueline Odicio Odicio, from ECMIA in Peru.
5. Implement girl- and adolescent-friendly integrated policies and services
CEFMU is rooted in inequality and gender-based violence, and driven by other structural issues like poverty, insecurity and social inequality. That’s why – in Latin America and the Caribbean – CEFMU mainly affects girls and adolescents living in rural and Indigenous areas, whose communities have been most marginalised. Addressing CEFMU means implementing policies and services to address these underlying causes, and ensuring the positive impacts are felt by girls and adolescents most affected by the issue.
“CEFMU happens for many reasons:[…] lack of work opportunities and few recreational spaces, limited basic services and lack of access to land. Abuse and violence also drive adolescents and youth to enter into unions and experience gender-based violence.” Karla Rax, Na’Leb’ ak, Guatemala
Governments in Latin America and the Caribbean are responsible for creating the conditions for girls and adolescents in Indigenous communities to fully exercise their rights. This includes ensuring they have access to sexual and reproductive health information and services, and safe spaces to respond to cases of violence.
At the community level, there should be contraceptives, training for those serving adolescents, and separate spaces for women and adolescents to respond to cases related to sexual and reproductive health, to foster trust and not be attacked. There should also be support and services provided in Indigenous languages.Karla Rax, Na’Leb’ ak, Guatemala
For girls and adolescents to thrive, they need access to appropriate services and policies that support them to pursue their life goals outside of child marriage and early unions.
You can see and listen to the full event with the testimonies and recommendations from representatives of Indigenous organisations on our YouTube channel.
For more insights on child marriage from young Indigenous women, see our “Nothing about us, without us!” blog.
In the time it has taken to read this article 69 girls under the age of 18 have been married
Each year, 12 million girls are married before the age of 18
That is 23 girls every minute
Nearly 1 every 2 seconds
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