When a young man in Mayra Lineth Pop’s village asked her to marry him for the second time, she was determined to turn him down again. It was 2016, and she wasn’t ready to get married, she told her father. She wanted to continue her studies. Their family needed money, her father told her in response, and it was time for her to start her own family.
She was 14. The man who wanted to marry her was 21.
Located in Guatemala’s Izabal department, Chinacadenas is home to a small indigenous community of 415 inhabitants, and it’s where Pop’s path was set before she was even born. As a young woman, she was supposed to get married and have children, take care of her husband and family.
“The boy was from my village. I knew him, but we never talked. We weren’t boyfriend and girlfriend,” said Pop, who’s now 19, when she was interviewed in early December. “Just like that, he showed up at my house to ask for my hand.”
According to Karen DuBois, program director at Fundaeco, an environmentally focused nonprofit that’s also working in the village on girls’ rights, Chinacadenas is a “very tightknit community, very protected and in constant communication among each other.” As DuBois put it: “If someone comes to the village to steal, word goes around among the villagers, and they capture the thief.”
That closeness among its members is also used to replicate ancestral customs such as arranged marriages, she said.
In Latin America and the Caribbean, child marriage often takes the form of an informal union, and girls from poor households and in rural areas are particularly vulnerable. In Guatemala, 29 percent of women between 20 to 24 had been married or in an informal union before the age of 18, according to an August 2019 report on child marriage published by UNICEF. The country with the highest prevalence of child marriages in the region is the Dominican Republic, with 36 percent, and the prevalence of child marriage has remained stagnant in Latin America and the Caribbean compared with other regions that have made progress in reducing the number of child brides in the past 25 years.
Although it’s early to fully quantify the pandemic’s effect, analysts agree that the coronavirus has reversed gender equality gains won in the previous few years, and girls’ rights are no exception. According to a new analysis released by UNICEF on Monday, 10 million additional child marriages may take place before the end of the decade. The organization was projecting 100 million by 2030, and that was taking into account progress that had already been made.
Pop’s story, meanwhile, is an anomaly. When she finished primary school, she went to her teacher and told him she wanted to continue her studies. She went to a nearby store, and she asked for notepads and other school supplies on credit, promising she would pay for them later, Pop recalled. A community leader heard about her determination and asked Fundaeco for help, according to DuBois. By then, the organization was offering courses for girls on women’s reproductive rights and scholarships to continue their studies.
Pop managed to go to secondary school using scholarships — until the second time the young man’s family came to ask for Pop’s hand, and her dad agreed. Once before, when she was 13, the young man’s grandparents came to Pop’s house with the same request. But her dad had turned them down. Now, things had changed. Her dad, a day laborer in an African palm plantation, did not always have a steady income, and the situation in the region had gotten worse, she said. She was the oldest of four children, and her parents told her they couldn’t afford for her to continue studying.
A few weeks later, Pop took her case to the justice system, with help from Fundaeco. During the trial in juvenile court, which took place a couple of months after she first started the process in the judicial system, an interpreter translated for her dad, who understands Spanish but speaks primarily the Mayan language Q’eqchi’. (Pop also grew up speaking Q’eqchi’, but learned to read and write in Spanish through school.) The judge found the girl’s testimony, in which she said she wanted to exercise her right to continue with her studies, to be persuasive, DuBois said.
In January 2017, he ruled that her rights were being violated and that Pop should continue with school and receive therapy, and that her parents should attend parenting lessons. He granted her paternal grandfather custody of her. The case was uncommon; DuBois said she hadn’t heard of such a ruling in Guatemala before or since.
With help of another scholarship, Pop moved out of her parents’ house to get her college degree in forest engineering. When Guatemala went into lockdown last year because of the pandemic, her classes went from in person to online, so she moved back with her parents. She misses her classmates and admits that it’s harder to study, she said. With no Internet at home, she travels to the nearby town of Livingston every Saturday, downloads the lessons and homework for the week, and uploads the lessons she already finished.
In 2015, Guatemala’s congress passed a law that banned marriage before the age of 18, but the law also established that a judge could grant teenagers as young as 16 permission to marry. A new law that passed in 2017, eight months after Pop won her case, got rid of that loophole.
But the pandemic has exacerbated known risk factors that contribute to child marriages, according to Claudia Cappa, senior adviser for statistics and monitoring at UNICEF and one of the authors of the 2019 study as well as the analysis released Monday. An economic crisis, such as the one brought about by the pandemic in many parts of the world, is one of them, because girls who would normally not be at risk of child marriage may become vulnerable. Families may resort to child marriage to alleviate their financial situation because, if the girl marries and moves in with her husband, the family will have one less mouth to feed. Child marriage is used as “a coping mechanism,” Cappa said.
School closures — in this case, prompted by the pandemic — and teen pregnancies are also factors that can contribute to child marriages. “Particularly in the context of Latin America, where we don’t have a ceremony to start living with a man, for instance, sometimes there is a pregnancy first and what triggers the union is the pregnancy,” Cappa said. “With girls not being in school, with reproductive health services being disrupted, with a different allocation of time, girls might be exposed to increased risk of teenage pregnancy.”
In Guatemala, the number of teenage pregnancies is also worrisome and, in some cases, is used as an indicator to account for arranged marriages that might have been undercounted, because most often these marriages take the form of informal unions. There were 114,858 teenage pregnancies in 2019 among girls between ages 10 and 19, and 99,656 from January until early December 2020, according to Guatemala’s Reproductive Health Observatory Network (OSAR).
The lockdown and the interruption of government programs geared to at-risk populations are what worries DuBois most. “A lot of this happens within a close family circle, and it’s not reported to authorities,” she said.
Mirna Montenegro Rangel, director of OSAR, shares DuBois’s concerns regarding the pandemic’s effect on these vulnerable populations. “What is worrisome is that the access these girls or teenagers who were victims of sexual violence had to therapy, help with delivery at the hospital if they were pregnant ... once covid hits, they don’t have access to those resources anymore,” she said.
Pop has been celebrated by other local women as an example of someone who pushed back, who fought for a different path. Ericka Rodríguez, a 19-year-old who was part of one of Fundaeco’s programs along with Pop, remembers her enthusiasm in continuing her studies. “She’s an example for other women, for us,” she said.
Rodríguez, who lives in Livingston, finished high school thanks in part to a scholarship from Fundaeco. Now, she is taking a job as a live-in housekeeper at a nearby town to save money to continue her studies once the pandemic subsides.
Pop has two years left to get her degree in forest engineering at the Rural University of Guatemala in San José, Petén. “I enjoy studying, understanding what’s happening around me,” she said, highlighting that forest engineering caught her attention because “I was able to do something to save the world” from climate change.
“I want to finish my career and get a job,” Pop said, “and I’d like to help other girls, so they can have a future like mine.”