Is Brazil missing the conversation about child marriage?

Still widely ignored, child marriage is a major obstacle Brazilian girls need to overcome in their lives.
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A World Bank recent study pointing to the costs of child marriage has brought again to the media the enormous costs this social phenomenon has for the welfare system worldwide. Despite being part of the Sustainable Development Goals, ending child marriage is still a far target to be achieved by a large share of countries, mainly the developing ones. One of them is Brazil, a place where child marriage has been quite ignored by both the government and policymakers.

A worldwide problem with Brazilian specificities

The organization Girls Not Brides defines child marriage as any formal or informal union where at least one of the partners is aged less than 18. This is a socially and economically problematic issue because usually early marriage relates to individuals’ low educational levels and professional perspectives.  This trend is particularly important for women: Girls Not Brides estimates that a girl younger than eighteen, generally from the poorest classes, gets married around the world every two seconds. The earlier a disadvantaged girl gets married, the more difficult it is for her to conclude her education and to get a good job – establishing a cycle which perpetuates her poverty.

Brazil plays an important role in this scenario. According to Promundo, Brazil has the fourth highest absolute number of child marriage incidences in the world. The Brazilian Household Data Survey (PNAD), in turn, reports that 36% of Brazilian women aged between 20 and 24 were married before age 18 in 2010, and 11% were married before age 15. This data reinforces how child marriage is normalized and accepted in Brazil’s society, where men say they prefer to marry younger girls because they are more attractive and easier to control. Contrary to what is more commonly observed in Africa and Southeast Asia, child marriage in Brazil is ordinarily informal, but similarly seen as an alternative to the lack of girls’ education. Futhermore, child marriage in Brazil is often seen by the girls themselves as an escape from childhood violence and abuse in their own family homes.

Teenage pregnancy and misogyny

Another important reason for the high incidences of child marriage in Brazil is the high rates of teenage pregnancy in the country. According to UNICEF, the wish to deal with an unwanted pregnancy is one of the main reasons Brazilian girls fall into child marriage. Data from Datasus shows 21% of births in Brazil were from mothers under the age of 20 in 2016 – a share which has not decreased for the last ten years. Commonly from disadvantaged families, young mothers are more likely to marry younger, and consequently, to drop out of school – generating a poverty trap. According to IPEA, 76% of Brazilian teen mothers were not attending school in that same year.

The high incidence of child marriage in Brazil is also a symptom of a sick society where misogyny is still very present. Brazilian women’s lives are not easy in a country where they are assaulted every fifteen seconds and 43% of them have already suffered some kind of violence in their own homes. Economically, Brazilian women are the minority in the labour force and earn on average 32% less than men (IBGE). Politically, despite being 52% of the electorate, they occupy only about 10% of the parliament seats. Finally, the austerity plan just implemented by the Brazilian government may make the next twenty years even tougher for the country’s women.

All to be done

In spite of all this, Brazil does not have any specific law to avoid or forbid child marriage. On the contrary, according to Brazilian regulations, girls can legally marry even at age 16, provided they have the consent of their parents. More than a legal framework, Brazil also needs policies which target informal unions – which make up the majority of child marriage cases in the country.

For the time being, however, the issue of child marriage remains considerably ignored in Brazil. In spite of the recent efforts through gender-specific policies implemented in the last years, neither Brazilian society nor the government has yet to recognize that child marriage is an existent problem in the country, and it has yet to be addressed as an essential step to fully promoting women’s empowerment. Currently, Brazil is simply detached from the international conversations and goals regarding child marriage – and detached from its own reality.

Is Brazil missing the conversation about child marriage?
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Diego da Silva Rodrigues

Diego is an applied economist interested in policy evaluation and quantitative methods. His main interests are around family issues, such as marriage, parenting, gender, fertility and children, being member of the International Network of Child Support Scholars (INCSS) and the Parenting Culture Studies Postgraduate Network. Diego has also publications in migration and health economics, and is currently involved with human rights and democracy activism in South America. At present, he is completing his PhD at the University of Kent, UK, and is lecturer in Economics at IESGO, Brazil.
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