Central America and the Caribbean make historic strides to end child marriage

Honduras, Trinidad and Tobago, El Salvador and Guatemala abolish discriminatory legislation which allowed this harmful practice against girls and adolescent women


La Asamblea Legislativa de El Salvador aprobó la ley para prohibir el matrimonio infantil. Foto: ONU Mujeres
The Legislative Assembly of El Salvador approved the law to ban child marriage. Photo: UN Women

Latin America and the Caribbean has been one of the regions hardest hit by child marriage. Until 2012, 29% of Latin American girls were getting married underage[1]. Despite this bleak picture, Central American and Caribbean countries have made historic steps in recent months, kindling hopes that the tides could be turning for girls and adolescent women in the region. 


On 12 July, the Honduran Congress modified the National Family Code revoking all legal exceptions that until then allowed the marriage of minors. Though technically forbidden, marriage of girls as young as 16 was possible with parental consent. 


El Congreso de Honduras instaló el 'Congreso Móvil' y aprobó la iniciativa de prohibir el matrimonio infantil. Foto: Diario La Tribuna
The Congress of Honduras installed the “Mobile Congress” and passed the initiative to ban child marriage. Photo: Diario La Tribuna

A month later, neighboring Guatemala and El Salvador took similarly decisive steps. 


In Guatemala, legal reforms were approved which effectively banned marriage for any person under 18 years of age, while in El Salvador all legal exceptions for child marriage were derogated. 


Congresswoman Karina Sosa, who promoted the initiative in El Salvador, highlights why repealing these exceptions is particularly relevant to end sexual abuse of girls and adolescents: “The law had already forbidden child marriage, but exceptions could be made if the underage was pregnant or had a child with the person she was to marry. This fostered rape of girls by older men, who were protected by these provisions. Child marriage was a shield for impunity. But today, impunity is falling”.


According to figures from 2014, in El Salvador 29.1% of women between 20 and 49 years old married before reaching 18 years of age. In 2012, United Nations agencies registered that 45% of girls between 10 and 17 years old that gave birth that year had been living with their partners before getting pregnant [2]. 


Marleni Matias, Congresswoman from Guatemala and Chair of the Women’s Parliamentary Commission, underscores the magnitude of the problem in her country: according to official data, 14.3% of Guatemalan girls and adolescents of up to 17 years of age were pregnant. This figure leaped to 24.1% when considering girls and adolescent women up to 18 years old. 


Mujeres del Congreso de Guatemala votaron para aprobar la reforma que prohíbe el matrimonio infantil. Foto: ONU Mujeres.
Congresswomen from Guatemala voted to pass the reform that banned child marriage. Photo: UN Women


“Changes won’t happen overnight, this will be a process that will take some time, but this is already a step forward for us. We have to stay on this route to achieve in a few years a real decrease in underage pregnancy. This is a dream of ours, and we have to start from legislation to make it happen”, expressed Matias.


Meanwhile, last June, Trinidad and Tobago amended  the Marriage Act, the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act, the Hindu Marriage Act, the Orisa Marriage Act and the Matrimonial Proceedings and Property Act with an aim at ending the practice of underage marriage.


Child marriage had been the subject of heated debate for over a year in the country after the Inter-Religious Organisation (IRO) suggested that the country’s marriage laws should not be amended, despite allowing girls as young as 12 to get married. 


In these countries, UN-Women, working closely with partner agencies including UNICEF and UNFPA, supported parliamentarians in pushing forward these critical legal reforms and promoting the topic in the public agenda.


UN-Women Regional Director for the Americas and Caribbean, Luiza Carvalho, applauded these advances, labeling them “historic”: “One of the targets of SDG 5, devoted to gender equality, is precisely to remove discriminatory laws and practices against women and girls. What we are seeing today is the implementation of the SDG framework so that it works for girls and adolescent women.”



[1] Marrying too young. UNFPA. 2012: http://www.unfpa.org/sites/default/files/pub-pdf/MarryingTooYoung.pdf 

[2] Mapa de embarazos en niñas y adolescentes en El Salvador. UNFPA, 2015: http://elsalvador.unfpa.org/sites/default/files/pub-pdf/mapas_embarazos%20_v4M2br_0.pdf