Sara Schonhardt
Girls with Colectivo Joven, a girl-focused youth group in eastern Guatemala, play a game at the end of their weekly meeting. The girls gather each week to talk about their rights, learn leadership and advocacy techniques, and discuss problems girls in their communities are facing.

In push to end child marriage in Guatemala, young women are on the front line

Countries in Central America have strengthened laws against child marriage, but rates are still high. Real change comes from changing minds, advocates say – and local girls themselves can do that best. 

In this remote village perched high in the hills of eastern Guatemala, a spunky 21-year-old in high-tops and skinny black jeans is holding court in a former coffee-processing plant.

In front of Patricia Rossibel Cortéz Jiménez are dozens of girls, ages 8 to 18, who whisper and swing their feet beneath plastic chairs as she opens a weekly training with a question: “What is gender?”

The cavernous, cinder-block space grows quiet. Finally, one girl answers: “The difference between a man and a woman.”

“It’s also the role family and community assign to people,” says Ms. Jiménez, a mentor who runs weekly gatherings here for the youth organization Colectivo Joven. 

She breaks the girls into two groups and asks them to write out typical gender roles. Women do laundry, cook, care for children, writes one. Men farm and work outside the home for salaries, writes the other.

It’s stereotypes like that, says Jiménez, that groups like hers are trying to debunk.

“We are told … that we are not going to study because we were born to be in the house, to have children, to get married,” she says. Parents “don’t know that we have dreams, that we have goals that we want to accomplish.”

Rights advocates say the stereotypes contribute to high rates of child marriage in Guatemala, where nearly 1 in 3 girls marries before her 18th birthday.

But mentor-based programs are gaining traction as a means of tackling the problem. Many help girls build self-esteem and devise life plans beyond marriage. They teach girls their rights, and to educate their communities about why child marriage poses risks. 

Mentors like Jiménez – young, confident, and local – lead the trainings because they understand the challenges their peers face. In time, they say, the girls they mentor will become their own best advocates – and change-makers in their communities.

Backed up by the law

Guatemala has the largest economy in Central America, but also some of Latin America’s worst poverty, malnutrition, and maternal mortality rates. Inequality is especially stark in rural areas, home to many indigenous groups who historically have been subjected to exclusion and racism. Access to jobs, health care, and education are limited. More than half of the girls in these areas marry before age 18.

The reasons involve a complex mix of poverty, lack of opportunity, tradition, and beliefs that girls’ value comes from bearing children. Increasingly, advocates say, girls themselves see marriage as an escape.

Teen brides tend to have less education or stop school after marriage. They often bear more children and are more at risk during childbirth. They also face a higher threat of domestic violence, limited decisionmaking, and poverty than peers who marry later, according to a recent study by the International Center for Research on Women and the World Bank.

An August decree could boost efforts to end the practice by closing a loophole in the civil code that had allowed adolescents 16 and older to wed with a judge’s permission.

It’s a continental trend: Legislators in Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala have all approved recent reforms eliminating exceptions for marriage among minors – putting them ahead of even the United States, where activists are pushing for a nationwide ban.

“You really can’t achieve any form of large-scale sustainable change without having the legal framework in place,” says Denise Dunning, the founder and executive director of Rise Up, a US-based organization that trains and funds community leaders to advocate for women.

Real challenge: root causes

Rise Up supported a coalition of girl-focused groups to lobby lawmakers in Guatemala to raise the marriage age to 18, in part by getting girls to sit down with them and share their stories. They’ve celebrated the ban as an indication their voices are being heard. But they also know that while the law is a first step, it’s far from a final one.

Many countries set the legal marriage age at 18, but enforcement remains weak. In many areas, de facto unions are more prevalent than formalized marriages, leaving young ‘brides’ with even fewer protections. And advocates argue that such unions will continue, regardless of what the law says, if the reasons behind them aren’t addressed.

The law is a good idea, but “it’s attacking the symptoms, not the real causes,” says Saúl Interiano Ramirez, the founder of Asociacion Coincidir, an adolescent-rights group working to change social norms and strengthen girls’ networks.

Alejandra Carrillo de Leon, the congresswoman who co-wrote the Guatemalan decree, is pushing for more investment in education, job opportunities, and health and recreational programs that empower women. The challenge, she says, “is to stop seeing girls like an economic burden and more like a development opportunity.”

“It’s a cycle of children becoming parents, and then guiding their own children down the same path,” says Norma Dilia Cortéz, the mother of a girl in the Colectivo Joven program, who is glad to see girls learning to challenge that thinking.

'The key is critical mass'

Nearly 300 miles from Tierra Blanca, mentors leading the Abriendo Oportunidades program in central Guatemala are using the law to boost their efforts. They’re broadcasting messages to parents, judges, and mayors to explain not just that child marriage is illegal, but why.

“Imagine, at last, a law that protects young girls from school dropout, violence, and motherhood before their time,” says one radio spot. The campaign includes live call-in programs and daily spots read by the girls themselves.

Supported by the Population Council, an international health and development organization, the Abriendo program provides safe spaces in indigenous communities where girls can discuss their futures and learn about their rights and reproductive health. It also encourages community leaders to promote girls’ access to school and discourage child marriage, key to reshaping social norms about girls’ value.

Challenging those norms is not easy, and many mentors say they’ve faced resistance for talking about taboo subjects like sex and gender. Some have been the brunt of rumors, derogatory name-calling, or harassment, a sign that acceptance of underage unions runs deep.

“There is a belief that a woman’s place is in the home, so they don’t see women as becoming something else,” said “Alicia,” an Abriendo mentor who asked not to use her real name for safety.

After 13 years in Guatemala, Abriendo is starting to see results. Program data show that 97 percent of mentors age 15-20 didn’t marry or become pregnant while they were in the program, and 76 percent of girls age 12-18 stayed in school, versus 40 percent of girls nationally.

“The key is critical mass,” says Alejandra Colom, director of the Population Council in Guatemala. “That’s why we try to work with at least half the girl population in the community: because social norms are collective.”

Ms. Colom says the messages are important because the girls, nearly all of whom are indigenous, are giving them in their own language and with cultural context. “They’re not just going to repeat what the law says; they’re explaining it in ways that make sense to people and parents and girls."

That means being organized, says Alicia, whose affable nature can’t mask her determination. “It is not that there isn't anybody else doing this, but we have to have initiative to do it in our own municipalities, in the communities,” she says. “It is we who have to start, it is why we keep on going.”

– Sara Schonhardt reported from Guatemala on a fellowship from the International Reporting Project.

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