A dozen young women sit in a stuffy, gnat-filled room in a community center in Coatecas Altas, part of Mexico’s Oaxaca state.
At first they’re shy. But it doesn’t take long for them to start talking about the pressures they face to marry at a young age.
“People will come up to me in the street and ask how old I am, and then they’ll tell me I’m getting old,” says Yolanda De la Cruz, 21.
Child marriage was banned in Mexico in 2014, and while rates of child marriage around the world have fallen in recent decades, the numbers in Mexico haven’t moved much.
According to the U.N. Women data, 25 percent of Mexican women ages 50 to 54 say they married as children, while 21 percent of women 20 to 24 report the same — a small change over more than a generation.
Many of the women in Coatecas Altas were married before adulthood. Finishing school is a major challenge for them.
The women at the community center are tutors and students, part of a program that helps young women finish primary and secondary school online. It’s funded through a federal initiative called Promajoven, Young Mothers Program, run by the INEA, the Adult Education Institute.
“The idea here is that women aren’t meant to study, but rather raise kids,” says Celestina Guzman, 20. “You’ll get married, so there’s no reason to study. Your responsibility is the household.”
Traditions persist — but there are changes in attitudes across generations, as evidenced in this group of assertive young women. Few are dressed in traditional stitched dresses and tops. Most wear jeans and blouses. The women either volunteer to tutor others or are students earning a stipend to study.
“I think we’ll be different from our parents’ generation in that we can talk to our children about things,” Guzman says. “Our parents’ failure was not talking to us about things. Lots of our parents were forced to get married but could never talk about it.”
Child marriage is still ubiquitous in Coatecas Altas, although there are no official figures on how many of these unions take place before age 18. According to U.N. Women, based on statistics from Mexico’s INEGI agency, there are 6.8 million women in Mexico who married before turning 18. And, the data show, a fifth of Mexican women marry underage.
The group of women gathered at the community center estimate the average age for girls to marry in Coatecas Altas is 14 but say it happens as young as 11 or 12.
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