By Anastasia Moloney
BOGOTA, Jan 26 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Costa Rica has raised the minimum age for marriage to 18 under a law that experts hope will prevent teen pregnancy and girls dropping out of school, but enforcement could be a challenge among indigenous communities where child marriage is prevalent.
Under the new law, which came into effect this month, children age 15 and above are no longer allowed to get married with their parent's permission.
The law also sets out a maximum penalty of three years imprisonment for adults who have sex with children under 15 if the age difference between a child and adult is five years or more.
UNICEF hailed the law as an important step in protecting girls' rights and moving Costa Rica towards meeting the global goal to eradicate child marriage by 2030. One in five girls in the Central American nation of 5 million people are married by 18.
"This law guarantees the protection of children and adolescents in situations that flagrantly harm and violate their dignity and rights," Gordon Jonathan Lewis, UNICEF's Costa Rica representative, said in a statement on Wednesday.
"In addition, the country takes a very important step towards fulfilling the national agenda for children and adolescents and the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals."
But implementing the law will be particularly challenging among Costa Rica's indigenous communities, who live in poor rural areas where child marriage is most common, experts say.
In the Ngabe community, for example, indigenous girls become eligible for marriage once they reach puberty.
"There's a social and cultural acceptance and tolerance of these types of inappropriate relationships between girls and older men. Changing the social fabric takes time," Paula Antezana, deputy representative for the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA) in Costa Rica, said by telephone.
Implementing the law involves educating girls about their rights, empowering them to say no to relationships with older men, and raising awareness among judicial officials about the new law, Antezana said.
When girls get married at an early age, they are more likely to get pregnant as teenagers and in turn drop out of school, depriving them of an education.
Teenage pregnancy carries significant health risks. Complications in pregnancy and childbirth are the second highest cause of death for 15- to 19-year-old girls globally, according to the World Health Organization.
In Costa Rica, 16 percent of all births are among girls under 18, and in rural and coastal areas the rate rises to as much as 27 percent.
"For a middle-income country like Costa Rica that's a very high rate," Antezana said. "In Costa Rica, teenage pregnancy is practically an epidemic."
Child marriage traps girls in poverty, and puts them at greater risk of domestic and sexual violence.
Each year more than 15 million girls worldwide are married before they turn 18, campaign group Girls Not Brides says.
(Reporting by Anastasia Moloney @anastasiabogota, Editing by Alisa Tang. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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