Concha Mercedes López Raxtún takes pride in her home, two sons, and tranquil life in rural Chimaltenango, Guatemala. The 53-year-old Mayan woman often cooks for her family and tends to the livestock while her husband works in the cornfields near her home.
She appreciates the life she has built since she got married at age 17. However, she often wonders if becoming a wife and mother later in life would have given her more opportunities for education, economic independence, and personal growth. "I regret that I got married at such a young age," said Raxtún. "I was just a girl, and the decision has had repercussions for my personal life."
In Guatemala, 30 percent of girls are married by the age of 18, according to UNICEF. This practice makes girls vulnerable to sexual exploitation, economically reliant on their husbands, and susceptible to teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. Around the world, 15 million girls are married before their 18th birthday.
I regret that I got married at such a young age. I was just a girl.
Recently, human rights organizations lobbied to change child marriage laws in Guatemala. One of those organizations was Refugio de la Niñez, an NGO whose name means Shelter for Childhood in Spanish. "We started to ask: What are the situations that affect girls culturally and socially, in regards to patriarchy and machismo?" said Sandra López, program director at Refugio de la Niñez. "What are the situations that make them vulnerable?" Teen marriage—and the conditions that it breeds— was the answer.
In early November, Guatemalan Congress voted 87 to 15 to increase the legal age of marriage to 18 in an effort to curb teenage pregnancy and improve access to education for young women. Previously, girls could legally marry at age 14 and boys at age 16.
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Guatemala has the highest teen pregnancy rate in Latin America, and nearly 70,000 girls under the age of 19 gave birth from January to August of 2015, according to statistics from the Reproductive Health Observatories Network. This has serious effects on women in the country: Young mothers face grave health risks, often stop attending school, and are more likely to live in poverty.
"Being a girl in Guatemala is not easy. It's even harder for women in indigenous, poor, or rural areas," López said, adding that economic necessity, teenage pregnancy, and cultural practices are some of the main reasons that young women get married in Guatemala.
Raxtún dated her classmate and future husband for five months before becoming pregnant. The couple—now together 36 years—then decided to get married. This meant that Raxtún could no longer go to school and had to instead dedicate her time to cooking and cleaning for her husband.
At age 17 and with a strained relationship with her parents, Raxtún couldn't comprehend at the time the responsibilities she was taking on and how her decision could affect her future. "When a young girl is married at a young age, she stops going to school," said López. "There are no more opportunities for her to better her quality of life."
Young girls, some who get married as young as 12 in Guatemala, do not have the emotional or physical capacity to take on the responsibilities of wives and mothers, according to López. Often they are forced to move in with their husband's parents, a situation uncomfortable at best and dangerous at worst.
"[My husband] told me: Come on, you can live at my house," said Raxtún. "I didn't want to. I wanted to live with my parents and I didn't want to leave them." But her father's disapproval and husband's threat to leave her made living with her in-laws the best option. Her in-laws treated her kindly, but she often stayed inside doing housework while her mother-in-law judged her domestic abilities.
At 17, I got pregnant, got married, and had to stop going to school.
Decades later, Raxtún cries just thinking of the lost opportunities to study and improve her quality of life. "At 17, I got pregnant, got married, and had to stop going to school," she said, sitting on her couch. "This still affects me because I don't have my own income and I have to rely on my husband."
López believes that changing the law is just the first step in getting rid of this deeply ingrained societal practice. Girls as young as 16 can still get married at the discretion of a judge, a provision which human rights groups opposed because it presents challenges in implementing the law nationwide.
Now that the law has been passed, López said that Refugio de la Niñez will switch their approach towards awareness, especially in rural and indigenous areas of the country. "There is lot of work still," she noted. "First, that judges know the law. Next, that parents know the law."
Raxtún has already been spreading awareness of the consequences of teen pregnancy and marriage as a pastor in her community. Her own so, now 35, got married at age 24 after he finished school and got a job. And Raxtún discusses sex and marriage with her 16-year-old son, breaking the tradition of Guatemalan parents viewing these topics as taboo.
"If I had been able to get an education and I didn't have to get married so young, I know I would have been better off," Raxtún said.