Why are there so many child unions?

In Mexico, most child unions occur among girls and adolescents. In 2020, we added more than 237 thousand girls and adolescents united with a partner, more than 28 thousand of them were between the ages of 12 and 14. We know that crises that generate economic stress and school closures bring with them an increase in pregnancies and child marriages, 1 2 so today that number must be higher. We also know that usually these unions happen with men much older than them and that there are girls under 12 who are in this condition and that we cannot know how many and where they are.

Of the total number of girls and adolescents who are tied to a partner, 45% have been mothers at least once, and more than 3,300 of them are between the ages of 12 and 14. More than just data, these numbers force us to pause and reflect on the risks they mean to the personal lives of these thousands of girls and adolescents in the country, and the urgency to do everything possible to mitigate them. The data means, for example, that many of them at an early age have already experienced obstetric abuse, 3 have abandoned their studies 4 and are doomed to work without pay all their lives. Others, for example, are very likely to have already experienced a high-risk pregnancy, 5 sexual abuse 6 and are facing the death of their son or daughter due to complications. 7 In addition, there are people who have already experienced violence in their homes or are more vulnerable to encountering it at some point in their lives. 8

It is because of situations like these that we have called on the government and society to rethink the current situation facing girls in this country, find ways to slow down their processes and respect the different stages of their development. For this to happen, their context must be conducive to this, and it is this context that must prevent girls or adolescents from being forcibly joined or being forced to decide that joining is their best or only alternative.

The above because today we know that some of the girls and adolescents who are united with a partner, to give a few examples, are forced to do it with someone because of family economic strategies or because they had an early pregnancy and their value in society and your family is at stake; or because in their community union with an older man is a common practice 9 and is perceived as a way to access better living conditions; or even some because they see this union as a way out of the context of violence in their homes. In other words, girls’ life trajectories and their family situations are shaped by their gender and age, that the causes are diverse, and that they are sustained by the normalization, acceptance and intergenerational transmission of deep inequalities. They are the ones who pay the highest price.

Changing these contexts is complex, but should be possible. All possible mechanisms must be activated to ensure that the best alternative is another, that reunification with a partner can wait, and that they know that their value in society is no longer affected by this variable. Instead, let them have free time to discover themselves; that the school is a safe place where their curiosity is encouraged, that they can find comprehensive information about sexuality without prejudice; that they know friendly and effective mechanisms to access protection if they feel unsafe and that they have access to all sexual and reproductive health services; that they and their families have a secure income and access to social security, and that an upbringing based on tenderness and respect is the norm in all homes. Although there have been efforts to do so in Mexico, we are still far from achieving it.

There is a need to strengthen public policy strategies and an immediate action plan that actively seek a deeper understanding of the causes of child marriage, from national to municipal levels, and then strengthen differentiated strategies that address them, with stable and clear budgets. To date, there is no clear overall strategy for this.

However, the National Strategy for the Prevention of Adolescent Pregnancy (ENAPEA) mentions the need to generate actions aimed at preventing sexual violence, marriages, unions and forced pregnancies after less than 15 years. It is this type of process that needs to be monitored and strengthened to place it as a primary and not a secondary component, as child pregnancy is both a cause and effect of child unions. A few weeks ago, the report made by El Colegio de México on early pregnancy in Mexico specified that there are sometimes state groups that direct ENAPEA actions to the adolescent population, without “specific actions for those who experience greater vulnerability in terms of early pregnancy, sexual violence or forced marriages”. 10

On the other hand, remember that changing the number of child unions can only be achieved with an active, critical society that is ready to start uncomfortable conversations to ask what this situation is that we have normalized for many years. for all girls and adolescents in a country.. Even so, collective solutions are sought.

We believe that uncovering these causes and better understanding them will lead to these more specific strategies. Moreover, their understanding will be adequate only if their perceptions are taken into account, if what they see and hear from an early age, both they and their peers and the people around them, are identified; if we understand how they decode the discourses we use in the spaces where they develop and assess whether we affect or encourage their agency. 10 years after the creation of the International Day of the Girl, we remember that with them we will be able to adapt their context and ensure that they experience each stage of their development freely, safely and protected.

* Mariana Beeu Pría Esesarte is the Political Advocacy Coordinator for Save the Children in Mexico (@SaveChildrenMx), an independent organization that is a leader in promoting and protecting the rights of children and adolescents. It works in more than 120 countries, dealing with emergencies and development programmes. Help boys and girls achieve healthy and safe childhoods. In Mexico, it has been working since 1973 with programs for health and nutrition, education, child protection and the protection of the rights of children and adolescents within the framework of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Visit our page and our social networks: Facebook: @SavetheChildrenMexico, Twitter: @SaveChildrenM, Instagram: @savethechildren_mx.

1 UNICEF (2021), 10 million additional girls at risk of child marriage due to COVID-19.

2 Save the Children, Center for Human Rights, Towards an end to child marriage: Lessons from research and practice in the development and humanitarian sectors.

3 INEGI (2022), National Survey on Relationship Dynamics in Households (ENDIREH 2021), Community Press No. 485/22 p. 28.

4 INEGI (2020), Tables from the 2020 Population and Housing Census.

5 UNFPA. (2020), Socio-Economic Consequences of Adolescent Pregnancy in Mexico, 2020.

6 INEGI (2021), National Survey on Relationship Dynamics in Households (ENDIREH 2021), p. 99.

7 World Health Organization, Adolescent Pregnancy.

8 National Commission for Prevention and Eradication of Violence against Women (2017), Child marriage seriously affects the rights of children and adolescents.

9 El Colegio de México, Pfizer (2022), Early pregnancy in Mexico. Analysis of the decentralized implementation of ENAPEA.

10 Ibid.

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