Last month, when I interviewed Dr. Faith Mwangi-Powell, Head of Girls Not Brides, I learned that the pattern of child marriage was different in Latin America and the Caribbean, in that young girls often marry or enter into unions with young men or boys closer to their age (as opposed to Asia or Africa, where the groom is often older). Wanting to know more, I spoke with Fernanda Vazquez Rojas, a Mexican activist and Advocacy Officer at Elige (Choose), a youth organization that advances the sexual rights and political participation of young people in Mexico, Latin America and the Caribbean. Elige is run and staffed entirely by young people, and its work is based on feminist principles. Elige supports young people throughout Mexico, Latin America and the Caribbean to exercise their rights to control their bodies and their sexuality through education, research and advocacy.
Fernanda, 25, lives in Mexico City, studied international relations at the prestigious UNAM (National Autonomous University of Mexico), and created FOARFEM (Forum for Feminist Reflection and Analysis) before joining Elige. I met her last September in New York City, at an event organized by the Ford Foundation to highlight the work of Girls Not Brides and the issue of child marriage worldwide.
Here are some excerpts of my conversation with Fernanda. They have been translated from Spanish and edited.
Fernanda and her colleagues at Elige use a number of strategies to advance young people’s sexual and reproductive rights:
FVR: “We have four areas of work. First, the social decriminalization of abortion. While abortion has been decriminalized in law in a number of Mexican states, taboos persist. Social decriminalization is especially important for young people, so we do a lot of online work on this issue. Second, Elige runs training workshops on sexual and reproductive rights in schools [in 2021, they reached 2,500 adolescents in 35 different venues]. Third, we conduct research with youth on topics we need to learn more about, and fourth, we advocate, using the information gathered through research and education. Our advocacy campaigns, whether at national or regional level, are always done together with other organizations and activists. For example, Elige is a member of working groups in Mexico such as the National Strategy to Prevent Adolescent Pregnancy, where we collaborate with different public health institutions like the National Institute for Women and other civil society organizations. We are also active in publicizing the Charter of Adolescent and Youth Sexual Rights in Mexico, to make sure young people know about their rights. We are very interested in enhancing the political participation of young people.
In 2014, Mexico adopted a law on the rights of girls, boys and adolescents (Ley General de Derechos de Niñas, Niños y Adolescentes), which for the first time, moved away from a legal approach solely focused on protection, and instead recognized that children and adolescents have human rights, with an evolving capacity to make their own decisions.
As I learned from my conversation with Fernanda, child marriage (defined as a formal marriage or informal union where one of the parties is less than 18 years old) is quite common in Mexico, with 23% of girls married or in a union before the age of 18, a statistic that has remained basically the same for close to 30 years. Girls living in rural areas, and Indigenous girls in particular, are more likely to enter a union early. As is the case across Latin America and the Caribbean, these unions tend not to be formal marriages: in Mexico, four out of five unions are informal. Adolescent pregnancy is also high, with Mexico ranking among the OECD countries with the highest prevalence of these pregnancies.
I was curious about the relationship between adolescent pregnancy and early marriage in Mexico. Is the high rate of teenage pregnancy driving child marriage?
FVR: “Mexico is one of the countries with the highest rate of adolescent pregnancy. It’s worrisome, of course. And yes, when you become pregnant, you generally get married. Because that’s what one does, right? Being a single mother is not proper. But I’m not sure that’s the fundamental reason for child marriage in Mexico. We have to dig deeper to understand what is behind it: we don’t get comprehensive sexuality education, we lack access to contraceptives, we don’t have control over our sexual lives and our bodies as young people. I think, fundamentally, that is why child marriage occurs, because we don’t have access to services and can’t exercise our rights.
And it’s important to take into account the lack of opportunities for young people here, child marriage or no child marriage. Young people really don’t have much opportunity. I was privileged to be able to study and to live in an urban area, where I had access to services and a better chance to have my rights respected. But for most young people, access to education, which is guaranteed by our Constitution, is really not great. In some places, we don’t have schools, or we don’t have [publicly-funded] systems of care. There’s no one to take care of Grandpa, so you are given that responsibility, and you can’t go to school anymore.
So it becomes a vicious circle, where this lack of opportunity traps you in dependency and violence, and all the other problems we are fighting against. I feel it’s important to understand this—the lack of opportunity—as the key issue, and not just teenage pregnancy. And this is not just in Mexico, but in many other countries of the region.”
Fernanda is right, of course. Going through the research, it becomes clear that, in Mexico, half the girls who give birth before the age of 18 and who were married or in an informal union at the time of the birth, had entered the marriage/union before conception, suggesting that what drives Mexican girls to marry before 18 is a broader set of factors than teenage pregnancy alone.
I was intrigued by Mexico’s use of legal reform to try to end child marriage. Before 2014, the minimum age of marriage with parental consent varied across Mexican states, and was usually lower for girls than boys. In 2014, the Federal Congress of Mexico reformed the Federal Civil Code to set the age of marriage at 18 for boys and girls, without exception. Congress urged the 32 states of Mexico, which have the final say on the conditions of marriage, to incorporate this change into their own laws, which they gradually did. However, in reality, little has changed. Informal unions have largely replaced formal marriages, so that the overall rate of child marriage/union remains the same. Predictably, school dropout rates for girls and early pregnancy and childbirth—two consequences of child marriage—have also remained the same.
Given this, youth activists like Fernanda are concerned that the legal status of informal unions involving a minor is now worse than before legal reform. In Mexico, informal unions enjoy legal protections equivalent to marriage when a man and woman live together for two years or have a child together, but only if there were no legal impediments to their marriage. This rules out child marriages/unions, leaving underage brides in limbo, without the legal benefits or social recognition married women get.
Fernanda was particularly worried about recent efforts to criminalize child marriages/unions, in response to the problem of forced marriages in some Indigenous communities. The proposal currently before Congress would impose sentences of 8 to 15 years of prison for adult spouses, parents, relatives, community or religious leaders. These sentences would increase sentences by 50% when the underage bride (or groom) is Indigenous or Afro-Mexican, irrespective of their consent to the union:
FVR: “These are approaches that are very punitive, that would criminalize young people in some cases. Last year a law was proposed to ensure that all unions involving a person under 18 would be considered a crime. And for us at Elige, that was really problematic, because there are times when young people exercising their evolving capacity and growing autonomy decide to enter a union. Sometimes there are other power dynamics at play. If I am 16 years old, and there is a lot of violence in my family home, then a union might be a way to escape this violence. And now this wouldn’t be possible because it is criminalized? That violates the autonomy of adolescents. It’s not that we think that child marriage is a great solution. But with youth, we feel there should be other approaches than criminal law. Criminalization doesn’t mean it won’t happen; it just means that young people will be more vulnerable.
For example, we had a case of a 16-year-old girl who decided to enter a union after a conflict with her parents, but she could not exercise legal capacity as a married woman, because her union was invalid. So, she couldn’t go to school anymore, because she was still a child and couldn’t register herself. So this made her more vulnerable, you see? And the same with access to healthcare. If I marry another young person and he has a job, I cannot sign up for his social security benefits because our union isn’t legal. So, I have no access to healthcare, or my children don’t. Those are real problems caused by the punitive approach.” [If you read Spanish, the recent Elige report on Prohibiting marriage before 18 years of age: Protection or Increased Vulnerability? is a thoughtful examination of these issues.]
Still, the impact of child marriage can be dramatic for these young girls, who find it hard to stay in school, and are saddled with caretaking:
FVR: “Last year, Elige conducted research on youth and caretaking. We found that once young girls entered a union, their access to education and healthcare decreased compared to their male partners just because of that union. It also had to do with gender roles, because women and girls have to take care of the family, cook, clean and everything else connected with maintaining the home, and with caretaking. And this burden of care reduces the time they have for education, taking care of their health, leisure, and many other pursuits and rights.
When it comes to education, it’s not that Mexican law prohibits married girls or girls who have a child to go to school. The law allows it. But it’s very difficult to continue going to school when you have a baby, because you have to divide your time between the baby, school, and everything else in the home. The cultural norms are also strong: “Who is going to take care of your baby?” And there are no public daycare facilities for those who go to school, or even who work outside the home, only private ones. This means that only those who are privileged, who are of a different social class, can continue to study, because most people can’t afford private daycare, you see? Education is guaranteed in our Constitution, but the means to exercise that right and continue your studies, are simply not there.”
Other research confirms this: Of the Mexican women born in the early 1990s, only 15% of those who had married before the age of 18 (either in a formal marriage or informal union) finished secondary school, as compared to 65% of women who didn’t marry before 18. That’s a huge difference.
What is the way out of this seemingly intractable situation? Fernanda noted the need to address taboos and provide young people with comprehensive sexuality education:
FVR: “All of this is tied to taboos in our culture. I can speak more about Mexico, but I see similar patterns across Latin America, where sexuality is still taboo. Of course, some adult activists have been trying to break these taboos for a long time, but I feel young people are expanding what is acceptable. It’s good that we can live our sexuality responsibly and with information. It’s good that we can now “sext” [sexually explicit text message] if we want. That’s our sexual right. Access to contraceptives is important, but I don’t think that should be the main entry point. The focus of sexuality education should be how we think about sexuality overall. Not just about sexual intercourse, but how we present ourselves, what our identity is, what music we like, how we speak. It’s about many things beyond just having sex, no? Which is usually all people think it is, that and teaching us about male and female anatomy!
Comprehensive sexuality education deals with respect, with emotional responsibility, by taking into account the feelings of the other person. This includes having a “life-plan” that encourages the young person to think about their goals and what they want for their future. It also means debunking “romantic love,” which is a big, big topic in Mexico. It breaks with the idea that “love can overcome everything,” that “you can be unfaithful to me 50 times and I’ll still be there because our love is strong.” Comprehensive sexuality education also deals with the political participation of young people, how they can know their rights and demand them. Because you cannot demand your rights if you don’t even know they exist. Education gives you the tools and the knowledge to do this, to know them and demand them.”
Going back to the question of adolescent sexting, I told Fernanda I worried about revenge porn, but also about the use of criminal law (such as laws against child pornography and sex offender registries) to “control” this practice, with terrible consequences for young people in the US. Fernanda noted a similar pattern of criminalization of youth in Mexico:
FVR: “In the last few years, we have had a series of legal changes, which together are called “Olimpia’s law,” named after an activist who was the victim of digital sexual violence. You can now denounce someone who publishes your photos or videos online without your consent [and they can be fined or go to prison]. At Elige, we are concerned because, while it’s important that this problem has been recognized, we don’t feel a punitive approach is productive for young people. Sending them to prison for this is not the right approach, because people often don’t understand exactly what’s wrong. I feel that what is needed is education about gender, about respecting other people and their privacy.”
In her work, Fernanda connects with young people from across the region and the world, and she finds the knowledge and solidarity that come from those connections to be very important:
FVR: “We are part of the Latin American and Caribbean Youth Network for Sexual and Reproductive Rights, or RedLAC, which is made up exclusively of young people. We have Zoom consultations with other young people across the region, where we learn from other young people about their needs and their demands on various issues. It’s not simple, because many youths don’t have access to the Internet or a computer, so we know this approach has limits, and favors only certain young people with the means to connect, but we have to start somewhere, right?
To connect with vulnerable young people within Mexico, we have found that training workshops are useful. We are often invited by an organization or an official body in a state like Chiapas or Veracruz, where we would not otherwise connect easily with young people, to give a workshop. We would like to go to these states to conduct research and meet young people on a regular basis, but we don’t have the resources.
I really enjoy bringing the experience and perspective of Latin America and the Caribbean, especially that of young people, to international meetings. Like other regions, we face poverty and have experienced colonialism, we have many social problems, but we also have many positive examples of social movements making change. We have progressive [intergovernmental] agreements in the region, like the  Montevideo Consensus, which recognizes sexual and reproductive rights and has a chapter on young people. At the international level, there are very conservative actors, like Russia, that are constantly vetoing and wanting to delete language on women’s rights. Latin America brings another point of view to counter these discourses, including the rights of girls, women, young people, other persons in situations of vulnerability like LGBT and Afro-descendants. These international meetings are also an opportunity to meet young people from other parts of the world, to know their reality, to realize that Mexico and the region are not the only places where these things are happening. It allows us to build broader alliances and coalitions to face these systems of oppression, and to hold our governments accountable. So, Mexico, you signed all these agreements, what are you doing to meet your obligations? You can’t just sit at the international level and say how progressive you are, you have to take action to make these agreements a reality.”
Yet, unfortunately, Fernanda feels that young people’s perspectives remain on the margins of policy-making:
FVR: “Systems of oppression sometimes feel very abstract or diffuse, you can’t quite put your finger on what is happening, and you can’t identify a specific person to blame for what is going on. But that doesn’t mean these systems don’t exist, that there aren’t structures in which we have to operate. Adult centrism is one of these. It’s everywhere! The belief that young people don’t have abilities, that they are not disciplined, are irresponsible, just want to take drugs, and so on. It’s important to recognize this system, because it denies young people the very opportunities. which then causes that lack of capacity or of discipline. That’s why Elige focuses on young people. We are trying to provide youth with opportunities and experience that we’re not getting right now.
We need more young people involved in making decisions. It’s not enough to listen to our voices and our lived experiences, although that’s important, of course. Young people have to be brought into decision-making, to participate in developing public policies and hold decision-making roles, so that we can explain and demand what we need.”
Adults everywhere love to speak about young people as the motor of change, the hope for the future—perhaps to skirt their own responsibility for addressing current problems. When I asked her how she feels when she hears that “young people are going to save us,” Fernanda expressed a realistic but hopeful view of the challenges and pressures facing young people in Latin America today:
“Sometimes I am hopeful, sometimes not, and sometimes I feel it’s very complicated, when you take into account all those situations for young people, not only in Mexico, but elsewhere around the world, what is going on in Afghanistan, in Palestine. All of this is very tough, and on top of it, we have to face climate change and other issues that are huge. Young people have strength, yes, but all this stress and pressure affects their mental health, and that of adults too. It wreaks havoc on the mental health of young people, and we don’t talk enough about it. But we have strength, and young people have achieved great things in Latin America, and we can take this to the global level. Of course, we have to deal with other obstacles, such as language barriers, distance, and funding, but young people can join forces to face these challenges together. This is where I feel young people can open windows of optimism and possibility—to change things for the better, together.”
In solidarity with the young people of Mexico and of Latin America and the Caribbean,