OPINION: Dominican Republic must seize the chance to stop child marriage

by José Monteiro | International Justice Mission
Thursday, 10 December 2020 12:26 GMT

ARCHIVE PHOTO: A woman walks in her home in the centre of Managua March 4, 2009. REUTERS/Oswaldo Rivas

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Legal loopholes allow early marriage in a country where a third of women are wed before they turn 18

By José Monteiro, Country Director for International Justice Mission Dominican Republic

Today on Human Rights Day, the Dominican Republic Constitutional Court stands at a critical point of inflection in the country’s history, as it decides the constitutionality of child marriage. Now as governments start moving toward rebuilding amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, children have been particularly impacted and are at a higher risk of poverty, violence and vulnerability than before, highlighting the crucial need for safeguarding children’s rights. The Constitutional Court has the responsibility to do just this – protect vulnerable children – by declaring child marriage unconstitutional by the end of 2020.

One in four young women in Latin America and the Caribbean was married or in an early union before reaching the age of 18 (UNICEF, 2019). Alarmingly, the report also shows that this rate has remained practically stagnant for the last 25 years, with the Dominican Republic having the highest rates in the region. If this trend does not stop now, the report highlights, the region will have one of the highest rates of child marriage in the world by 2030.

Child marriage has a deep and devastating three-pronged impact. First, girls as young as 11 years-old have their childhood end abruptly and are often forced to assume the role of adults and mothers. A recent report warns this makes them twice as likely to experience intimate partner violence than women married over 18 years-old (Girls Not Brides, 2019), and we have seen it makes them more vulnerable to sex trafficking. Psychology experts highlight the damage an individual suffers when subjected to living intimately with a much older person, let alone the devastating risk of child pregnancy. Additionally, other studies show that complications during pregnancy or childbirth are the leading cause of deaths of girls between the ages of 15-19, and the Dominican Republic has one of the highest early pregnancy rates in the region.

Second, at a societal level, child marriage continues to perpetuate the cycle of poverty for children and young women and has a direct impact on the country’s economy. Every day, hundreds of girls are married in the Dominican Republic. According to a World Bank study (4), ending child marriage in the country would reduce the total birth rate and population growth by 10%. In 15 years, this would mean an additional $4.8 billion to the country.

Third, at a judicial level, the current legislation enables impunity by allowing a legal pass for those who sexually abuse and exploit children. Often used by criminals who seduce and lure minors into situations of abuse and exploitation and then use child marriage to cover up their crime avoiding criminal consequences. Holding criminals accountable is upholding children’s rights to justice and protection.

In June 2020, International Justice Mission (IJM) petitioned the Dominican Constitutional Court to both declare child marriage unconstitutional and change Law 659 on Civil Status Acts, highlighting that it is a violation of the fundamental rights of children. This petition quickly gained support from more than 15 organizations and coalitions. who have come together to raise awareness and demand change by holding a monthly social media push, tagging the Constitutional Court on Twitter and using the hashtags #nolacases (#dontmarryher) and #niñasnoesposas (#girlsnotwives).

Late in August, the Court revised the petition and began the process of analysis. By law, the Court has four months to rule over this petition. As children continue to be forced into this practice, those four months are close to an end. IJM and its partners are asking the court to respond within the legal timeframe and declare child marriage unconstitutional by the end of the year.  

In November 2020, The House of Representatives of the Dominican Republic unanimously approved the elimination of two articles of the Civil Code¹ that allows children  to be forced to marry with the permission of their parents and a special order issued by a judge. After approval by the House of Representatives, the Senate must review and approve these changes. If approved, the legal exceptions that allow child marriage and early unions would be removed from the Civil Code. Congress has been evaluating a petition to reform the Civil Code for more than 10 years, and if both houses pass it, this would be a critical historic shift.

Yet, to sustain that shift, the Constitutional Court needs to declare this practice unconstitutional. This legal change will, once and for all, end child marriage in the country.

What is at stake here is freedom, free will, dignity, and the future of Dominican girls and boys. We must all stand in favor of this fight, which not only takes children out of tragic situations but also keeps the Dominican Republic from advancing in the protection of the rights of children and adolescents.

Let’s not delay!