On Wednesday, Dominican Republic President Luis Abinader signed a bill that bans child marriage by prohibiting marriage for individuals under the age of 18. The law also creates the Cabinet of Women, Adolescents and Girls under the Ministry of Women, designed to combat violence and encourage gender parity. Activists, who had campaigned for the ban after noting legal loopholes that allowed children to be forced into marriage, applauded the decision.
According to UNICEF, the Dominican Republic has had one of Latin America’s highest rates of child marriages and early unions, often with girls living with older men. The country’s government figures show that more than a third of women aged 20 to 24 were married or in an informal union before they were 18. While victims of child marriage include both girls and boys, many advocates have noticed that girls are primarily affected and can face situations in which an abusive adult turns to marriage to avoid consequences for crimes against minors.
Sonia Hernandez, an associate director of the rights group International Justice Mission (IJM), was one of the people who had urged Abinader to act to change the laws. “Our girls and adolescents will be protected… and cannot be forced into marriage in their childhood or adolescence, which in the past was often carried out by parents and legally allowed,” she said, per Reuters.
In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, activists feared that economic hardships could drive some parents to marry their daughters off at young ages. Rosa Elcarte, UNICEF’s representative in the Dominican Republic, pointed out that the way in which the country looks at cultural norms and societal roles must change to continue protecting women and girls.
“Child marriage and early unions are seen as normal in society. It is driven by machismo that sees the role of a woman to be just a mother and wife,” Elcarte said. “Ending early unions will require years of work to change cultural norms.”
The U.N. estimates that 12 million girls under the age of eighteen are married worldwide, resulting in health risks, loss of education, and intergenerational poverty. Elcarte believes that girls should be given educational support and opportunities, breaking the cycles that often force them into marriage.
“Girls need to have alternative offers that becoming a mother is not their only plan in life,” she said. “They have to be given job opportunities.”