At 15, Aracely was resigned to being a single mother.
It had been almost two years since her husband left, declaring that the child she was carrying wasn’t his. Her son was a toddler now, and the man who had married her—when she was 11 and he 34—hadn’t so much as sent a letter since his birth.
“I thought I’d have a better life,” said Aracely, who lives in Petén in Guatemala’s northernmost region. “But at the end, it didn’t turn out that way.”
In an effort to improve the lives of thousands of girls like Aracely, Guatemalan legislators passed a law last Thursday raising the country’s minimum age of marriage to 18. It had been 16 for boys and 14 for girls, though girls often married or entered legal unions much younger. The new law, approved in an 87-15 vote, allows girls 16 and older to marry with a judge’s permission in some cases.
The Guatemalan congress’s action comes nine months after The New York Times published Child, Bride, Mother, a project by Too Young to Wed’s Stephanie Sinclair featuring more than a dozen photos of Guatemalan child brides and their children, many of them premature and critically ill. Sinclair traveled to Guatemala in the summer of 2014 as part of a Too Young to Wed project with the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). Guatemala was the 10th country where she’d documented the issue of child marriage.
“We are so incredibly excited about the Guatemalan Congress raising the minimum age of marriage from 14 to 18 for girls,” said Sinclair. “We realize that changing the law will not change the situation for girls right away, but we are grateful for this wonderful first step.”
Human rights groups like UNICEF and Save the Children were among those who lobbied hard for the change, noting that 30 percent of Guatemala’s girls—and as many as 53 percent in rural areas—were married before they turned 18, resulting in early pregnancies, a high infant and maternal mortality rate, truncated educations for the girls and an unending cycle of poverty, malnutrition and domestic violence. According to UNICEF, Guatemala recorded 74,000 births last year to girls between the ages of 15 and 19, and another 5,119 births to girls 14 and under.
Between 2009 and 2013, nearly 5,000 girls between the ages of 10 and 14 were married in Guatemala, according to national statistics. Thirty of them, like Aracely, were between 10 and 12. That’s far too young, Mirna Montenegro, a physician, sociologist and secretary of the Observatory on Sexual and Reproductive Health in Petén, told Sinclair.
“A child is not able at 12 or 14 years to buy cigarettes or go to a place and buy a beer or buy an alcoholic drink. They cannot vote either because the age in Guatemala for voting . . . is at 18 years. So how, if they cannot do that, . . . can they marry at age 14?” she said. “ . . . When you follow the story of these early marriages and pregnancies, you realize that in reality these girls have lost most of their rights.”