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How Guatemala is trying to keep girls from 'growing up too fast'

With pressure from NGOs, the government has improved monitoring of child pregnancies and is considering a bill to raise the minimum age for marriage.

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    An indigenous woman carries a child on her back while walking down a road in the village of Pambach, in the Alta Verapaz region, about 209 km (130 miles) from Guatemala City, February 20, 2014.
    Jorge Dan Lopez/Reuters/File
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Last January, a national scandal flared up in this small mountain town over the wedding of a young girl.

Adolescent marriage is common in Guatemala, where roughly 40 percent of the population self-identifies with native indigenous cultures, rooted in tradition. But by law, girls must be at least 14 to marry. The girl from Almolonga was only 12. What drew national attention was the fact that the wedding was officiated by the town's elected official, Mayor Edgar Leonel López de León.

Guatemalan authorities say this is the first time a mayor has fallen under official scrutiny for such a violation. But the way the case was discovered – after the young bride gave birth at the age of 13 – is the result of a growing effort among private and public actors here to protect girls from growing up too fast. With pressure and support from nongovernmental organizations, the government has improved monitoring of child pregnancies and is considering a bill to raise the minimum age for marriage.

The push reflects a gradual shift in attitudes toward young girls in this Central American country, where a conservative, patriarchal society has long relegated women to housekeeping and child rearing from an early age.

“At the local level, the fact that parents, teachers, even young women are starting to say, ‘fourteen seems a bit too young to become pregnant’ – that’s an important step,” says Shilpa Kothari, program and development director of Wings, a non-profit dedicated to family planning and reproductive health education in Guatemala.

Child marriages and pregnancies have “always happened," says Mirna Montenegro, director of the Reproductive Health Observatory (OSAR), a network of health-related groups in Guatemala. “The difference is that now, we’re counting them better.”

'The scene of the crime'

In 2009, Congress raised the age of sexual consent from 12 to 14 years old. However, the state didn’t get serious about enforcing the law until 2012, when the current ruling party took power. Through direct lobbying, OSAR convinced the government to commit to training state employees, such as teachers and doctors, to identify child mothers. These girls were rape victims in the eyes of the law, and their cases should reach the authorities, the organization argued.

“The scene of the crime is the victim,” says Claudia Orozco, women’s prosecutor in the highlands province of Quetzaltenango.

Since 2012, OSAR has collected reports on child pregnancies from the Ministry of Health and from midwives and women’s groups. In 2013, OSAR counted 4,354 cases of mothers under the age of 15. Last year, the tally was 5,119 cases.

Guatemala stands out in Latin America and the Caribbean, the only region in the world where births to girls under 15 rose between 1990 to 2011, according to the United Nations. The number of such births are expected to rise slightly over the next decade and a half, according to UN research.

Guatemala’s neighbors on the isthmus, Nicaragua and Honduras, show slightly higher rates of minor mothers, but Guatemala is burdened with the most in absolute terms. In 2013, Guatemala recorded about 1,250 more new mothers under 15 than the United States, which has a population twenty times larger. By this measure Guatemala is second only to Mexico, which in 2012 had nearly 11,000 such mothers.

Not every case of child mothers ends up as a formal criminal complaint in Guatemala, but public health workers are becoming more diligent about reporting, Dr. Montenegro says. In 2013, the Ministry of Health filed 608 complaints, and last year it submitted 921.

The importance of reporting these crimes has set in, says Ms. Orozco.

However, very few have resulted in convictions. Prosecutions of statutory rape tend to collapse due to a lack of community cooperation, Orozco says. Victims often refuse to testify out of fear or economic dependence on the baby’s father, and villages sometimes try to hide the young mother from investigators out of shame.

“There has been some progress, though a lot remains to be done,” says Ms. Kothari from the NGO Wings.

'Machismo'?

Still, government workers continue to file the reports. That’s what led to the discovery of the Almolonga affair, which may be the most famous case caught up in the bureaucratic dragnet so far.

The young girl from Almolonga had a baby last year and applied for the child’s birth certificate with the local office of the National Persons Registry (Renap).

An administrator at Renap realized she was underage and notified the regional women’s prosecutor in Quetzaltenango. The prosecutor, in turn, obtained the girl’s vital records and discovered that she had gotten married at age 12 to a 23-year-old man.

That age gap among spouses is not unusual in Almolonga, says Fr. José Maria March, a Catholic priest of Spanish origin. For two years he has lived in this Maya K’Iche’ town, where concrete cinder-block buildings share a valley with sloped vegetable fields and thermal baths.

“There’s still a lot of machismo in this culture,” he says. “Men actually want a younger wife because [they say] it’s easier to dominate them.”

When the women’s prosecutor noticed that the illegal wedding was presided over by Almolonga's mayor, she told the district prosecutor, who has asked the Supreme Court’s permission to investigate Mayor López de Leon – a necessary step since elected officials have immunity from prosecution while in office.

The mayor declined to discuss specifics of the case because it’s still pending. But López de Leon laments that in his native Almolonga, girls have historically married young, without meaningful courtship, in a situation arranged by their parents. Girls deserve more say and more options, the mayor says.

“We respect our indigenous culture, but we must keep making changes,” he says.

It's common for Guatemalans to get married in their early twenties, according to the country's National Institute of Statistics. Nevertheless, more than a thousand girls were wed before their fifteenth birthday in each of the three most recent data years between 2011 and 2013.

Congress is now sitting on a bill, supported by NGOs like Plan Guatemala, to raise the minimum marriage age to 16 years old. Dr. Montenegro of OSAR doubts the legislation will pass given the tumult of upcoming national elections.

But even if it passes, she argues, it's not likely to solve the entire problem: Many young couples live together outside of civil marriage, so a new law will have limited effect.

“It’s fine to change the law,” she says. “But that has to be accompanied by public policies so that the girls are empowered and can really aspire to have a life plan.”

Rosa Elvira Colop, the regional delegate for the government’s Indigenous Women Defense office, agrees.

“We can’t live with some of these customs that don’t permit girls to develop,” says Ms. Colop, who herself is of Maya K'iche' origin. She says some “have in their minds that the indigenous woman is only good for the kitchen and making food, and that’s not true.”

On a recent afternoon in Almolonga, Maria Siquiná sells tomatoes, sacks of corn, and vegetable oil in a store near the bustling central market square. Asked whether girls in Guatemala should turn 16 before getting married, the young mother, whose small daughter is clinging to her leg, does not hesitate to answer “yes.”

“They get married really young,” she says. “And then later, they regret it.”

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