The Dominican Republic needs to change its culture so that women are seen as more than housewives for banning child marriage this week, girls’ rights activists said Thursday.
The Caribbean nation has one of the highest rates of child marriage and early unions in Latin America, usually where a girl lives with an older man, according to UNICEF, the United Nations Children’s Fund (U.N.).
“Child marriages and early unions are seen as normal in society. They are driven by machismo that sees the role of women only as mother and woman,” said Rosa Elcarte, UNICEF representative in the Dominican Republic.
“Ending early unions takes years of work to change cultural norms,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. This includes working with men, children, and their families to encourage change.
More than a third of women between the ages of 20 and 24 were married or in an informal union before they were 18 years old.
According to the United States, an estimated 12 million girls worldwide are married before the age of 18 each year, increasing the risk for health, education, and abuse, and increasing the likelihood of intergenerational poverty.
That number is expected to rise as the rising poverty caused by the new coronavirus pandemic could lead more parents to marry their daughters early and reverse decades of work to end child marriages.
Sonia Hernandez of the International Justice Mission (IJM) rights group, which campaigned for the Dominican Republic to ban marriages for anyone under the age of 18, welcomed President Luis Abinader’s decision to sign the law on Wednesday.
“Our girls and teenagers are protected … and cannot be forced into marriage in their childhood or adolescence, which is often done in the past by parents and allowed by law,” said Hernandez, IJM’s assistant director.
UNICEF’s Elcarte said that girls need support to stay in school and find work in order to break the cycle of poverty that drives child marriage.
“Girls need alternative offers that becoming a mother is not their only plan in life. They need to get job opportunities,” she said.
A 2017 report by UNICEF and the World Bank showed that a ban on child marriage and early unions in the Dominican Republic would lower the country’s poverty rate by 10%.
“Passing this bill will help improve opportunities for girls’ human development (and) directly reduce the cycle of poverty,” said Virginia Saiz, director of the Dominican Republic’s girls rights group Plan International.