The lack of legislation in Latin American countries to prevent girls from getting married, little investment in educational programs and the culture of these unions, has created an environment leading to the standardization of girl and teenage marriage, said the humanitarian NGO Plan International.
"What is happening in Latin America and the Caribbean is that in neighborhoods unions of girls with older men has been standardized by social and cultural rules, which is why Plan seeks to make visible that the human rights of girls are being violated," said Emma Puig, head of Gender Transformation Programming of the NGO.
According to figures from Plan International, the leading nations in the prevalence of forced early marriages and unions in the region are the Dominican Republic (36 percent), Nicaragua (35 percent), Honduras (34 percent), Guatemala (30 percent), El Salvador and Mexico (26 percent).
"Worldwide, there is more talk about forced marriage in Africa and Asia, but in Latin America it is a very unknown reality. This problem is little addressed," Puig said from the Plan International Office for Latin America and the Caribbean in Panama.
She said that worldwide the trend is being reduced due to the political incidence to change legislative frameworks on the issue, but in the last 30 years the prevalence of early marriages in Latin America remains unchanged.
"In the Latin region, 1 out of every 4 girls has been married before the age of 18. In 2017, 23 percent of women between 20 and 24 years old were married before age 18, and an additional 5 percent had married before the age of 15," she said.
According to data from UNICEF, Latin America and the Caribbean is the only region on the planet where early marriages have not decreased in the last decade, maintaining an average of 25 percent.
The specialist in gender issues said that there are exceptions that facilitate the legal early marriage, such as authorization by the parents if the girl becomes pregnant.
"Girls are being forced to enter a life cycle for which they are not prepared. It will have implications for their personal development and they will not be able to access education. This scourge will definitely make it difficult for them to be a professional," said Puig.
This scenario is the well-known "transactions" usually engaged by families who suffer unfavorable economic conditions with the girls subject to exchange.
"These marriages are seen as a way out of poverty for the girls’ families. We often see what they think it is an opportunity for the females to move forward," regretted the delegate of the humanitarian agency.
She added that these unions also occur in other ways, when families subject girls and adolescents to a situation of violence, abuse, exploitation, in which they are mistreated and not protected in their home, which causes them to escape from this reality and join many older men, initiating a cycle of violence.
Puig said that governments in Latin America still have obstacles for girls and adolescents to access mechanisms to protect their rights, and that local entities have a lack of confidentiality and little follow-up and quick responses to the situations they face.
"The first step that the governments of the region must take is to recognize that forced marriage is a problem and stop thinking that it does not exist. It needs visibility; they must generate information and data that allows demonstrating the magnitude, and at the same time raise awareness in the population," said the delegate of Plan.
Therefore, she stated that the organization urges investment for children, so that it becomes a priority and key issue for governments to allocate a percentage of their budget to end that barrier.
Plan International in The Americas will address the issue of marriage and forced unions in girls at the second Global meeting of the organization "Girls not Brides", to be held in Malaysia from June 25 to 27.