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IPPF ACRO-Adolescent Informal Unions in the Caribbean and Latin America

News item

Webinar | Adolescent Informal Unions in the Caribbean and Latin America: Challenges 30 Years After the Belem Do Para Convention

A brief summary of what happened in the first session of our series of webinars.

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In Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC), one in five women marry or enter a union before the age of 18. This is the only region in the world where child marriage rates have hardly decreased over the past 25 years, and where informal unions without official registration are far more common than formal marriages. Given the relevance of addressing Child, Early, and Forced Marriages and Unions (CEFMU) in our region, IPPF ACRO has launched a series of webinars, “Informal Unions in the Caribbean and Latin America, to strengthen cross regional dialogue to promote comprehensive initiatives that put adolescents’ rights and autonomy at the centre. 

The first of these sessions commemorated the 30th anniversary of the Inter-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment, and Eradication of Violence against Women, known as the Convention of Belém do Pará by analysing the situation of adolescent’s informal unions in the region and their link to discrimination and gender-based violence.  

As a keynote speaker,  Dr. Gabrielle Hosein, researcher and academic from the Institute for Gender and Development Studies at the University of the West Indies, shared the research she conducted from 2021 to 2023 on Child Marriage and Early Unions in the Caribbean commissioned by UNICEF under the Spotlight Initiatives Caribbean Regional Programme. 


A gender-based violence issue 

The Belém do Pará Convention is the main regional instrument to address violence against women as a violation of their human rights. Thirty years after the adoption, child marriages have been recognised as part of harmful practices, being both a cause and a consequence of gender-based violence against girls and adolescents.

“It's still a challenge for all of us because despite all the commitments signed at the UN level, Child, Early, and Forced Marriages and Unions are still a barrier for many girls and young women, and it really has impeded their rights to be fulfilled,” Alessandra Nilo, IPPF ACRO’s External Relations Director, reflected when opening the session.

Although these political commitments imply numerous intersectoral interventions – ensuring girls' access to education, sexual and reproductive health, and rights, ending gender stereotypes and gender-based violence, and ensuring equality before the law – government responses in the region have been limited mainly in raising the age of marriage to 18 years and eliminating exceptions. This response, although an important step, is insufficiently short in addressing the needs and situations that girls, adolescents and young women go through. 


Zooming in on the Caribbean context 

There is growing regional evidence about underlying drivers, manifestations and impacts of CEFMU on the girls who marry, as well as in their families and communities. However, there remains a large information gap on the situation in the Caribbean.  

At the end of 2023, Dr. Gabrielle Hosein published a research brief that summarises the information available on CEFMU in the Caribbean and complements it with findings of research commissioned by UNICEF in the framework of the Spotlight Initiative Caribbean Regional Program, conducted in six Caribbean countries. 

“It's really important in our region that we always keep the question of adolescent sexual agency in mind and adolescent agency overall, and that we don't simply think about adolescent girls as victims,” Dr. Hosein shared.  

In our region, early unions, which are primarily informal, tend to be entered into by girls themselves. That is, girls are not being forced or married off into unions as they might be in other places or sold into unions in the same rates as in other places. 

None the less, girls are in disadvantage context, characterized by vulnerability, and they may enter unions for transactional exchange, for protection, to escape from family violence to secure support for their education and to experience intimacy.” 

In this research, Dr. Hosein and colleagues found clear intersectionalities that emerge from the data and point to the need to focus on the vulnerability these populations have been put in. Any approach needs to recognize these structural factors. 

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