A New Law Will Save Guatemalan Girls From This Harmful, Centuries-Old Practice

This is a huge problem in the developing world at large.

Today, 1 in 3 girls in the developing world is said to be married before the age of 18. More than 700 million women alive today were married as children. Earlier this month, in a bid to curb the antiquated and problematic practice of child marriage, Guatemala raised its minimum age to 18 for marriage for both genders. 

Congress approved the new law in a landslide vote (87-15) that bumped the minimum age from 14 for girls and 16 for boys — with some exceptions for 16-year-old girls to marry. 

It is a welcome change for a country where 7 percent of girls are married by age 15 and 30 percent by 18, according to UNICEF. Advocates also hope that it will help lower the country's staggering rate of teenage pregnancies, the highest in Latin America.

Christa Stewart, a representative of the women's rights charity Equality Now, told Reuters that it was "a really important step in recognizing the full potential of girls and reframing how girls should be treated in society." But she also acknowledged the challenges in enforcing the new law: "It requires a cultural shift to fully implement the law, the training of judges, and reaching remote rural areas."

Child marriage comes with a whole host of effects, including harming the child's personal development, domestic violence, pregnancy and childbirth complications, poverty, and sexually transmitted diseases.

Dreadful as Guatemala's child marriage rates might be, the country is not the worst offender. Niger sits on the top of that list: 3 in 4 girls there marry before the age of 18. And lest anyone thinks only the developing world is guilty of the practice, child marriage takes place in countries such as Norway, too.

Guatemala's new law is progress towards a world free of child marriage, but there is a lot more to be done. According to the global partnership Girls Not Brides, if concerted efforts are not made to end the practice globally, an estimated 142 million girls will be married as children by the end of the decade.

Cover image: David Amsler via Flickr