Media Center


Child and Early Marriage and Union in the Americas

  • The Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), adopted in 1979 by the UN General Assembly, prohibits forced marriage, affirms equality between women and men in marriage and urges States to set a minimum age for marriage;

  • The member states of the UN (A/RES/71/175, 2016) declared child, early and forced marriage a harmful practice that violates, abuses or impairs human rights and is linked to and perpetuates other harmful practices and human rights violations;

  • They also recognized that child, early and forced marriage undermines women’s and girls’ autonomy and decision-making and that the empowerment of and investment in women and girls, as well as their meaningful participation in all decisions that affect them, are key factors in breaking the cycle of gender inequality and discrimination.

April 13, 2017.

Shaquira’s Story*

“I got married [at 15] because I needed to run away from home. I was abused a lot. My family hit me with sticks. They did not trust me. They called me "crazy, a scoundrel." They fought with me a lot, one day in the middle of the street in front of the people, they hit me.

My dad never talked to me. He said I was a bastard.

One day I said [to myself]: "I don’t want to put up with this anymore".

I went to work in a family home, I was 11 years old.

But there the abuse was even worse. I had to do everything, even the washing by hand. They didn’t let me go to school and they never paid me, because they said they fed me. I suffered a lot. One can’t live this way. I lived as though I was imprisoned. They did not like me leaving the house, not even to go to the park.

I wanted to get married to get out of it. I thought that by getting married, I would be in a quiet house, I could eat, sleep and go out. I did not know that it was going to be like this, like hell, because I did not want this man, I loved another man, but they never accepted him.”

Source: Plan International

*Shaquira’s real name is not used to guarantee confidentiality and her anonymity

The Secretary General of the Organization of American States (OAS), Luis Almagro, met recently with Mabel van Oranje, Chair of Girls Not Brides: The Global Partnership to End Child Marriage, to discuss the issue of child and forced marriage and union in the hemisphere.

Child and forced marriage and union is not well understood in the Americas, despite the fact that UNICEF estimates that 23% of girls in Latin America and the Caribbean are married or in union before the age of 18.  Latin America and the Caribbean is the only region in the world where rates of child marriage and early unions are not declining, and are in fact increasing along with the number of births to girls under 15. Both of these numbers are projected by UNFPA to continue growing through 2030, which would mean that Latin America would be unable to meet its commitment to Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) #5 “Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls.”

The Secretary General emphasized that “This is an issue that we must address if girls and boys are to have the same access to development opportunities. With 1 in 5 girls across the region married or living in informal unions before the age of 18, we are losing entire generations to poverty, discrimination and violence.  We cannot close our eyes to this tragedy as the development of our society as a whole is undermined.”

Despite the global momentum on this issue, there is still a lack of visibility and awareness on the issue of child and forced marriage or union in the hemisphere. On November 29, 2016 the OAS hosted an international forum “Child, Early and Forced Marriage and Motherhood in the Americas,” which focused on raising awareness of the manifestations of this issue in the region. The meeting centered on identifying what we know (and what we don’t), establishing priority areas for future action in the region, and defining the specific role of the OAS as a regional convening body.  The recommendations developed at this forum included:

  • the importance of visibility and political engagement on the issue of child and forced marriage and union,
  • strengthening data collection,
  • legislative and public policy reform, and
  • ensuring a coordinated and integrated response from the international community, governments, academia and civil society.

“This is a global problem. In developed and developing countries around the world, young and adolescent girls are married or in union under the age of 18, often without their consent or agency.”

Sarah Fountain Smith
Assistant Deputy Minister
Global Affairs Canada

Moving forward, the General Secretariat of the OAS will work with Member States, key organizations and civil society to identify existing good practices and promising initiatives that can facilitate the development of country-specific strategies for addressing child and forced marriage and union. In line with the “Theory of Change” developed by Girls Not Brides, these initiatives can include empowering girls through a wide range of programs that invest in their development; engaging families and communities on their attitudes, behaviors and beliefs related to child and forced marriage and union; identifying and providing access to young women and girls to necessary services tailored to the unique challenges of their specific environments (including services for education, health, and violence against women); and developing and implement a robust legal and policy framework to reinforce prevention.

“Nearly 10% of the world’s population, or 1 in 3 girls, will be married by age 18. It happens across countries, cultures and regions. Of the top ten countries in terms of the number of girls married by 18, Brazil is #4 and Mexico is #8.”

Heather Hamilton
Deputy Executive Director
Girls not Brides

As a hemispheric policy forum that prioritizes the protection of human rights, the OAS will continue to move forward with its mandate of “More Rights for More People,” raising the visibility of the issue and strengthening political will in joining the global campaign to end child and forced marriage and union within a generation.

On March 23, 2017, the Committee of Experts of the Follow-Up Mechanism to the Belém do Pará Convention (MESECVI) released a Report on sexual violence and child pregnancy that calls attention to continuing discrepancies in the minimum age for marriage between girls and boys, and the ample room that exists in almost all States for exceptions to this minimum age, particularly in the case of pregnancy.   An exploratory study conducted by Girls Not Brides points to a number of the harmful consequences of child marriage and early unions, including higher rates of domestic violence, health complications resulting from early sexual activity and pregnancy before their bodies are ready, a lack of access to health services, and limited opportunities for education and employment, all of which perpetuate inequality and poverty among women and girls.

“Without a common approach to numbers and measurement …it’s difficult for us to develop coherent institutional responses.”

Shelley Abdool, UNICEF

The Americas remains one of the most unequal regions in the world, and addressing the issue of child and forced marriage and union is a vital step toward breaking the cycle of poverty and discrimination. Historically, marriage in Latin America has served as a means of acquiring security, prestige or power, and for many girls has become a common strategy for survival. Girls from poor families or lacking education are 3 times more likely to marry before they turn 18.  Once married, they are less likely to continue their education.  Without an education they are less likely to earn sufficient income to help get themselves and their families out of poverty. Education can be one of the most powerful tools to address poverty and create economic prosperity not only for women and girls, but also for their families and their communities.

“In El Salvador, for example, the legal age of marriage is 18, but a girl can be married at 12 with her parents’ consent. In Ecuador this was also the case until just last year.”

Paula Tavares, World Bank

Child marriage does not take place in a vacuum and efforts to end it should be an integral part of broader development efforts.  The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which were adopted by 193 Member States of the United Nations in 2015 included Target 5.3, a commitment to “Eliminate all harmful practices, such as child, early and forced marriage and female genital mutilation” by the year 2030.  The inclusion of the target is recognition that child and forced marriage and union is a core development and human rights issue..  The OAS has integrated the SDGs into its planning and programming and is committed to supporting the achievement of the goals over the next 15 years.

“Children are the future of our countries, of the world. What we do with our girls today will dictate what our countries will be tomorrow…Where you empower a woman you empower the entire community.”

Lorena Castillo de Varela
First Lady of Panama

Reference: E-031/17