In Guatemala, the legal age of marriage is 14 with parental consent, but in Petén, in the northern part of the country, the law seems to be more of a suggestion. Underage brides are everywhere. They parade endlessly through Petén’s hospital in San Benito, seeking medical care. Most have traveled from the villages along the mud-soaked roads that flow out in all directions.
I visited almost a dozen of these villages to meet some of the child brides of Petén for the latest Too Young to Wed transmedia project, this one a partnership with the United Nations Population Fund. Guatemala was the 10th country I had worked in documenting the issue of child marriage since 2003, after a chance encounter with several young brides in Afghanistan.
Child marriage is pervasive in more than 50 countries, with girls in rural areas of developing nations especially vulnerable. In the villages of Guatemala, around 53 percent of women age 20 to 24 were married before age 18, and 13 percent before age 15, according to the Population Council. Many of these girls faced harsh consequences, similar to those of child brides in other developing nations. They had withdrawn from their educations, some as early as elementary school; were subject to physical and sexual violence; risked dangerous pregnancies and went without crucial medical care. Many aspects of their lives were controlled by older men who considered the girls little more than sexual and domestic servants.
Furthermore, the physically immature and psychologically unready young mothers were prone to complications during childbirth, which often took place at home. For girls in Petén villages, the journey to competent care could take hours and the consequences dire. According to the International Health Alliance, Petén has the highest rate of maternal mortality in Guatemala at 172 deaths for every 100,000 births. The infant mortality is also high at 40 deaths for every 1,000 births.
When I visited the hospital, there were no fewer than four babies in the neonatal intensive care unit, all born premature to 14-year-old mothers.
“We call these children ‘little miracles,’ because it is a miracle that he is alive,” said Dr. Daniel Álvarez, a pediatrician with San Benito National Hospital, pointing out an infant who weighed only one and a half pounds at birth. “We don’t have the adequate equipment to treat a child that’s so little.”
Other times, the girls’ problems began only after making it home with their babies, where they were frequently abandoned by their husbands. Aracely was four months pregnant when her husband left, declaring the child wasn’t his. Now 15, Aracely is resigned to the burdens of being a single mother.
“During the time I was pregnant, he didn’t give me any money. He hasn’t even come to see the boy now that he’s a year old,” she said. Aracely is not alone in her experience. The United Nations Population Fund estimates that in 2015 more than 550,000 Guatemalan girls will marry before they are 18. That’s 1,500 girls married every day in just one country.
Aracely was 11 when she married her husband, who was 34. Now 15, she is raising her son on her own.
I thought I’d have a better life. But at the end, it didn’t turn out that way. — Aracely, 15
Carmen, left, 14, is three months pregnant. She lives at her in-laws’ house, right, with her husband, who is 23.
I was in school until fifth grade, when I got married. I have been raising my chickens to kill them when the baby is born. I was sad because I didn’t want to be pregnant. I was just sad, I don’t know why. — Carmen, 14
Sulmi, 14, who is 9 months pregnant, at her home.
My family was a little sad when I got married. They said I was really little and it’s a lot of responsibility to take care of someone. I was a little sad to be married so young. I am the youngest in my family to be in a union. Getting married is a lot better and prettier because you get to wear a big white dress. — Sulmi, 14
Rosario, 14, looked at her baby in the neonatal intensive care unit of a hospital in San Benito.
Saida, 14, with her month-old son.
Motherhood is hard. When they get sick, you don’t know why. I don’t have experience and don’t know what to do with him, probably because of my age. I sleep very little. He doesn’t cry much but he wants to be held all the time. — Saida, 14
Manuela, 14, at the San Benito Youth Clinic with her 1-year-old daughter, Dani. Married at age 12, she traveled more than two hours to the clinic to learn about family planning.
Tania, 17, waited with her mother-in-law at the San Benito Youth Clinic. Seven months pregnant, she was married at 15.
Daylin, 15, and Rubin, 17, left, looked in on their premature newborn, who was being cared for in the neonatal intensive care unit of the hospital.
My husband left for work in May, four months ago. I haven’t heard from him since. — Saidi, 16
A newborn child of a 14-year-old mother. The baby boy was born premature and weighed less than three pounds.
‘Too Young to Wed: Guatemala’
In Guatemala, it's legal for a girl to marry as young as 14 — though many are married far younger than that. The result: Many girls marry men far older than themselves and become mothers long before they are physically and emotionally ready. Communicating the individual experiences of these child brides across cultural and language barriers became my passion, and, ultimately, my life's work. This project in Guatemala was done in partnership with the United Nations Population Fund. The film below was co-directed by Katie Orlinsky.