Estrella was in the sixth grade when her boyfriend Hendrin said, with the urgency of young love, that they should spend the rest of their lives together.
“I was unsure because of my studies,” Estrella told VOA. “But since I love him so much, well, yes. I said yes! I knew I wanted to be with him.”
Their parents objected to the idea immediately. But, on August 25, 2018, Estrella Belen Estrada Rodriguez married Hendrin Gonzalez Melchor. The couple settled at his family’s small farm in the poor, southern state of Chiapas, Mexico. She was 13. He was 15.
“God willing, my daughter will be all right,” said Estrella’s mother, Maria Eugenia Rodriguez Valbuena. She held Estrella’s hand tightly. The two spoke outside their home a few days before the wedding. Valbuena was taking a break from sewing her daughter’s wedding dress.
No progress has been made in reducing the number of child marriages in Mexico for the last 30 years, the United Nations Children’s Fund reports. This is the case across Latin America and the Caribbean area. The international coalition Girls Not Brides says the area is the only one on the world where early unions are increasing overall.
UNICEF says girls with limited education who come from low-income households in poor, rural areas are more likely to marry at an early age. Research suggests that halting early marriage can raise living standards for girls and their families and improve a nation’s economy.
Mexico bans marriage before the age of 18
In early June, Mexico’s government announced a ban on marriage before the age of 18. The new rule affects many state laws that permit marriage with parental permission for males as young as 16 and girls as young as 14.
Mexico joins most other Latin American countries in setting 18 as the age of lawful marriage, says Girls Not Brides. Some countries, especially in the Caribbean area, have no lowest age established.
In Mexico, about one in four girls gets married or lives with a sexual partner by age 18, UNICEF reports. The practice is even more common in rural, Native-populated communities such as Chiapa de Corzo. That is where VOA partner Azteca News found Estrella and Hendrin. In such places, almost one third of girls marries young.
Children who live together as partners affect the underage marriage rate in Latin America. In Mexico alone, 80 percent of early unions are between unmarried people, Girls Not Brides reports. The data came from the Mexican health and demographic research company INSAD. It says teenage pregnancy is involved in about half of early unions.
Early unions interfere with schooling
Of girls who get married or are living with a partner in Mexico, only 10 percent return to school, INSAD says. It notes that household responsibilities or pregnancy often get in the way. Married girls who want to return to their education also may face discrimination, especially if they are pregnant.
Eugenia Lopez Uribe is Girls Not Brides’ top officer in Latin America. She says schools send pregnant girls a message that “we don’t want you here because you’re a bad example…” to other students.
Near Chiapa de Corzo, Estrella has left schoolwork for the study of homemaking. Her mother-in-law has taught her how to make Hendrin’s breakfast eggs, wash clothes and clean the house. Hendrin takes care of the farm animals and fieldwork. He, too, left school early.
Neither Hendrin’s nor Estella’s parents planned marriage for their children at such a young age.
When Hendrin told his father about his marriage plans, “He took me…behind the house, and he scolded me, and he hit me,” the teenager says.
Within a few days, his father accepted the idea.
OAS urges change
Almost a year into the marriage, Estrella and Hendrin say they are happy with their situation. Still, the national government wants to see fewer underage unions. So does the Organization of American States (OAS), which has urged its 34 member nations to support the U.N. goal of ending child marriage.
A 2016 OAS meeting on the issue led to advisements for expanding awareness, strengthening data collection, and reforming laws and public policies.
But advisements and legal reform are not enough, says Lopez Uribe of Girls Not Brides. She says girls must get expanded access to education and health care.
Girls “need tools and resources to develop their full potential and worth,” she says.
I’m Kelly Jean Kelly.
And I’m Ashley Thompson.
Words in This Story
wedding - n. a ceremony at which two people are married to each other
standard - n. a level of quality, achievement, etc., that is considered acceptable or desirable
practice - n. something that is done often or regularly
scold - v. to speak in an angry or critical way to (someone who has done something wrong)
awareness - n. the knowledge or recognition that something (such as a situation, condition, or problem) exists
potential - n. capable of becoming real; possible