COVID-19: latest news and resources on child marriage and COVID-19

Silenced realities: Child, Early and Forced Marriage and Unions in Latin America

Image: Jóvenas Latidas

“Every girl’s life is just as valuable as any other human being’s on Earth, and they need to dream, live their lives and have fun without being snatched by a childhood transformed into a great, ferocious ogre.” Valeria María Escalante Avila, a young activist in Mexico

A new reality is emerging all around the world, and we’re facing it as individual actors who are nonetheless part of the same system: the patriarchal system, which breaks us into little pieces. We are writing a new story, but we need to acknowledge the different issues faced by girls and adolescents. Among them is child, early and forced marriage and unions (CEFMU).

The first time I heard this term, several concepts related with gender, poverty, development and many others came to mind, concepts which – without us realising – form a smoke screen that silences parts of every child’s many realities. Behind this screen, there are diverse – and widespread – experiences of CEFMU in Latin America and the Caribbean. Did you know that, according to UNICEF, one in every four girls in the region marries or enters a union before age 18? It is also the only region in the world where this prevalence has not decreased in the past decade. These are overwhelming figures, given that we barely acknowledge it as a significant issue here. This is why it is important to continue shedding light on the practice and to address it both in the media and in public opinion, from simple chats with grandmothers to reaching the very voices of each girl and adolescent who lives her life surrounded by this harmful practice.

Illustration of Valerie with speech bubble declaring "All girls, adolescents and young women should be free to enjoy their rights. Their voices should be listened to, no matter where they are.

Image: Jóvenas Latidas

The lack of recognition and support, the absence of key actors in government institutions, academia and society, and the prejudices that rise to the surface when we start conversations about CEFMU in Latin America and the Caribbean create a common thread that weaves together the situations experienced by girls and adolescents. Experiences like not fully enjoying their human rights or having a childhood marked by violent and abusive situations, which have only got worse during the pandemic and associated lockdowns.

In Latin America and the Caribbean, CEFMU is a result of difficult circumstances that are reflected in the statistics and that we should address as a society. However, I am convinced that the statistics also indicate high rates of child marriage in the world and in my country, hidden in plain sight.

Violence against women, adolescents and girls manifests itself in different ways, including child marriage. It is not enough to merely talk about the issue; this is a practice that we see everywhere, and it is worrying that we normalise it by considering it part of a culture.

In short, we live in a sexist culture that surrounds us with great references and patterns. A culture which acts in self-defence through heteronormativity, visible throughout our lives. However, when we break away from the patterns instilled in us since early childhood, we free ourselves and follow a more encouraging path.

Finally, in the face of the new COVID-19 health emergency, we read news about the abuse and sexual violence we experience on a daily basis. It is a horrifying scenario, but this fear can also transform itself into the powerful voices of thousands of women and adolescents speaking up and speaking out. This work for the rights of girls, adolescents and young women is a job for all of us, in Mexico and everywhere in the world.

If you would like to know more about child, early and forced marriage and unions in Latin America and the Caribbean, this brief on the issue has some key facts and recommendations for all sectors interested in strengthening girls’ and adolescents’ rights in the region.