Indigenous girls forced into marriage in Chiapas, Mexico
By Patricia Chandomí
Chiapas Paralelo, 23 May 2016
"I was 11 years old when I heard they were going to take me away. I saw how they drank to celebrate the agreement. I saw that some pigs and household items were involved in the deal, and I ran away. I was really frightened. Later on I felt guilty that what happened to me was my fault, because I chose to run away from my village" explains Odilia Lopez Alvaro, an indigenous Chol woman and staff member at the Chiapas Women’s Rights Centre.
Hers is a story similar to many others, heard often in Chiapas over the centuries. In this Mexican state, men can obtain a "wife" of 11 years upwards. These girls, to put it bluntly, are there to provide them with domestic and sexual services.
It will be hard to change this ingrained custom, even in light of the recent law on the minimum age for marriage. The law was passed by the Mexican senate, but needs to be ratified by individual state legislatures. It will increase the minimum age to 18 years, with the aim of guaranteeing the rights of young girls and teenagers. The proposal was accepted by the Chiapas congress and adopted into the state law code, ensuring that only adults can marry.
The law is likely to have a less impact on indigenous communities in Chiapas however, given that marriages between minors can be contracted according to local customary law. This requires just three witnesses.
According to Maria Eugenia Perez Fernandez, a member of the Chiapas congress’s Commission for Women and Children, "the sale of women and minors continues in Chiapas, particularly in the Highlands, where they can be exchanged for material goods."
According to the National Institute for Statistics and Geography (INEGI, according to its initials in Spanish), 17.3 per cent of women marry before the age of 18, compared to 3.9 per cent of men. Marriages among girls and adolescents happens across the world, and not just in Mexico, though statistics are often hard to come by. This can happen as a result of marriages being made under local customary law, where they are consecrated without civil procedures, and without being legally registered.
These are marriages "in word". The "groom" talks to the father, and if the latter approves, some witnesses are brought in for a short ceremony. No formal matchmaker is required; anyone with some reputation or connection to the couple can approve the marriage. For this reason, it is hard to know exactly how many girls, teenagers and women are forced into marriage in this way.
Claudia Hasanbegovic, a specialist in social policy, says that forced marriages are found alongside trafficking, physical and psychological violence, and feminicide, as phenomena that women are subjected to on sole account of their gender. In 1975 the feminist Gayle Rubin wrote that throughout history, the bodies of women have been exchanged among men, to pay off debts, as presents, given as favours, sent as tribute, or bought and sold.
Poverty, marginalisation and the absence of the state
UNICEF (the United Nations Childrens Fund) published a document in 2010 that showed that a girl from a poor home was three times more likely to get married than a girl from a better-off family.
"In some families, girls are seen as a burden, another mouth to feed and dress. In other cases they are seen as a good, and owned in the same way that a cow is. They’re seen as having certain features that can fetch a good price from a groom" explains the feminist activist Karen Dianne Padilla.
The Highlands are the poorest region in the state of Chiapas, and are made up of 17 municipalities: Aldama, Amatenango del Valle, Chalchihuitán, San Juan Chamula, Chanal, Chenalhó, Huixtán, San Andres Larrainzar, Mitontic, Oxchuc, Pantelhó, San Cristóbal de las Casas, San Juan Cancuc, Santiago El Pinar, Tenejapa, Teopisca and Zinancantán. All of these areas have a significant indigenous population. Statistics published by INEGI in 2015 show that there are a million girls and adolescents in Chiapas, and that one in three of these are from the indigenous population.
Chiapas in second place for child marriages
In 2015, Consultores en Administración y Políticas Públicas, a research organisation, identified 747 registered marriages in Chiapas where one party was between 12 and 17 years old. This is slightly lower than the number for the state of Guerrero, where 795 such marriages where registered, the highest number of any Mexican state. However, these totals do not reflect marriages contracted within communities according to customary law, as these are not formally registered.
Although the Mexican constitution recognises the right of indigenous communities to self-determination, the freedom to apply community norms is meant to comply with respect for basic human rights and women’s dignity. Nonetheless, these rights are often violated through practices such as forced marriage, as David Vazquez Hernandez, a lawyer who specialises in gender issues points out.
"We have a federal Law for the Prevention and Elimination of Discrimination, which bans discriminatory practices such as impeding the free choice of a marriage partner, applying a customary law that violates human rights, or preventing the healthy development of a child", notes Vazquez.
"There is a tension between customary law, and respect for human rights. In the aftermath of the 1994 Zapatista uprising, various NGOs were set up in Chiapas which sought to promote self-government and autonomy at community level. There was a lot of international solidarity on this point. Nonetheless, local autonomy can obscure the fact that the rights of women are violated through the exercise of customary law" says Karen Dianne.
According to INEGI’s statistics, in 2010 there were 12,400 mothers under 15 years of age in Chiapas. This represented the third highest rate of adolescent pregnancies in the country. In 2016, Chiapas had moved up to first place, with 510 mothers between the ages of 12 and 14 also being reported.
Traditional marriages and forced marriages in San Juan Chamula
Marco Shilon, formerly head of the Chiapas Secretariat for Indian Communities, and of the Office of the Indigenous Attorney, and currently a lecturer in law at Chiapas Autonomous University says that for the Tsotsil Mayans of San Juan Chamula, individual rights do not exist. In the indigenous cosmovision, people are first and foremost members of a community. From here it follows that when it comes to marriage the choice of the family, rather than the bride, is paramount.
"The bride doesn’t know the groom. What happens is that the groom chooses a girl, then goes to speak to the parents to ask to marry her. He brings presents such as loaves of bread, bananas, soft drinks and posh (a traditional alcoholic drink in the Chiapas Highlands). When the boy leaves, the father asks his daughter if she wants to marry him. The girl can decide if she thinks he loves her or not. If she thinks so, she accepts, and the marriage is arranged. If she doesn’t like him, the boy can try again, up to ten times."
According to traditions in San Juan Chamula, after getting married husbands can return their wives if they’re not virgins, don’t know how to cook, don’t want to clean the house, or if they cry too much because they miss their home. In this instance, the parents of the bride have to give back the money they received for the wedding party, plus interest. If they don’t, they can be fined, or hauled in front of the community’s authorities.
Luz Santiz, from San Juan Chamula, points out that girls and teenagers are in fact sold into marriage. "There’s a sale, though the parents don’t say so openly, because they benefit from it". "My mother asked for ten thousand pesos, supposedly to pay for the wedding party. That’s the way it was put. She didn’t say openly, I want ten thousand pesos for my daughter. But she didn’t use the money for the party, but to pay a debt". Luz remembers that her mother denied having received money, "but I saw them hand over ten thousand pesos myself".
"Dario (her husband) got to know me when I was selling things in the Santo Domingo artisan market. I was 14. He gave me a card with credit for a mobile phone, along with a little note that had his number on it. He told me to call him. As I had the card in my hand, I thought I’d better spend the money on calling him, so he wouldn’t think I’d spent it on something else. So I talked to him, and we started going out. I said let’s go and have an ice cream; later on he bought me some sandals and we went to get our picture taken."
Luz says she had no romantic interest in him. "My mistake was to have a photo taken with him, because he threatened to use it to marry me. He told me he’d show it to my parents in San Juan, to show we were going out with each other. So for that reason I decided it was better to marry him. I went to live in his parents’ house, but he treated me very badly, he raped me. Nearly all of our sexual relations were rapes", she says.
The practice of forced marriage is solely found among indigenous communities. They frequently involve marriages among minors, with the "wife" sometimes being as young as 10, and men being between 14 and 16 years old.
Violence after the forced marriage has occurred
Margarita Lopez is from Tojchuctik in Mitontic municipality, one of the ten poorest municipalities in Mexico. She explains that she was married to Juan Velasco Lopez when she was 11 years old, in exchange for 10 large containers of posh. Although Juan took Margarita as a wife, he already had a partner, in line with local customary law. According to Margarita, both women were obliged to have sex with him. Juan also raped his elder daughter, who gave birth to two children as a result.
Eventually, Celia, Margarita’s oldest daughter, killed her father, when he was trying to rape the other daughter. Margarita spent seven years in prison as a result, but has now been released. She returned to her village, to look after her children and her mother.
Violence against girls and teenagers is an everyday occurrence, according to statistics cited by Melel Xojobal, an NGO. In 2008, a survey indicated that 42% of indigenous women from the Chiapas Highlands had been beaten or subjected to humiliations as a child, 7% had experienced sexual abuse, 41% had suffered violence from their partners, and 10% sexual violence from their partners.
"In our culture, sex isn’t talked about" explains Luz. "Many of us get to our wedding night without knowing what will happen to us; well, we’re just children – 12, 13 or 14 years old. Now I understand things better, I know that my first sexual encounter was actually rape. I didn’t want to, and it hurt. He forced me to do it, and afterwards, went on forcing me. Sex isn’t something that we enjoy much".
For the Mexican feminist Marcela Lagarde, violence against girls and teenagers is something that happens in social circles characterised by the violation of women’s human rights. Where this happens, it typically occurs in conditions of extreme social economic, political and legal marginalisation.
Indigenous women in worse conditions than the women of Morocco, the country with the greatest inequality in the world
|Indicators of sexual inequality from the World Economic Forum||Participation in the labour market by men and women||Literacy among men and women||Percentage of women in parliament|
|Morocco (country with the worst sexual inequality)||Men: 79% Women: 27%||Men: 76% Women: 58%||17%|
|Mexico||Men: 78% Women: 43%||Men: 96.2% Women: 93.9%||42.2%|
|Indigenous communities in Mexico||Men: 75.4% Women: 59.2%||Men: 75.4% Women: 59.3%||0.8%|
Data from the World Economic Forum, INEGI (2015) and the Mexican Congress (2015)
It’s not easy to get access to women in communities in the Chiapas Highlands without going via male authorities. As a result, conversations with them are always mediated through men. The stories in this report are therefore from women who don’t live in their community anymore, and who have been separated from their husbands, either because they were widowed, separated, left by their husbands, or because they ran away.
Manuel de la Cruz Santiz, a justice of the peace in San Juan Chamula says that in the majority of indigenous communities, women have the right to leave if the man "is very violent", or if both decide not to live together. If the man causes the separation, he is obliged to make a one-off payment of 3,000 pesos for each child, and to leave his wife with at least a room with a cement floor to live in. If the wife is responsible for the separation, she is sent back to her parents, who have to give back the money or goods they received for agreeing to the marriage. Reasons might include not complying with marital ‘obligations’, speaking to another man who is not a family member, or for initiating sex with her husband.
The pressure on men
Men are also under pressure to enter into this kind of marriage. Mariano Dias, 16, is a member of the Network of Indigenous Young People for Sexual and Reproductive Rights. He says that his family have pressured him to get married.
“My elder brother went to the United States to earn money and to pay for our wives. I spoke to him on the phone and told him that I want to go on studying, that I want to complete high school, and that it would be better if he gave me the money to do this instead. He told me no, that’s not our way, and that it would be better if I learned how to work in the fields, to help my father.”
Juan Perez Etzin, another member of the Network, says: “if you want to choose a different path, you have to leave your community, because staying put means accepting the community’s traditions. I went to the clinic to ask for condoms; the nurses made a note of my name and address, and then told my parents what I’d done. My parents scolded me, and told me that if I wanted to have a girlfriend I’d have to marry her and have a family with her. After that, I left.”
Marcus Arana, a member of the Citizen’s Observatory for Health Rights, mentions another issue. This is that boys as well as girls pass straight from childhood to adulthood without a transitional stage. Both are forced to marry, without having enough time to grow up and think about what they want.
“It’s lamentable, but the Mexican state doesn’t offer any other life project, it’s failing to guarantee the access of girls to education, health, or meaningful work. It leads to a sentence of marriage for life” says Arana. “This not only denies the right to choose who you marry. In an indigenous context, it also leads very quickly to having children.
The average years of schooling for the indigenous population in Chiapas is 3.9 years, according to INEGI, much lower than the average for the state as a whole, which in turn, is the lowest in the country.
“Education above all means access to more and better information, and it allows adolescents to have greater self-confidence and autonomy, as well as better life chances and the possibility of work outside the home. It allows better decisions about sexual behaviour and about contraceptives. Educated women are better able to defend their rights, make decisions about their bodies, take decisions and participate as citizens" says Karen Dianne Padilla.
For Arana, a doctor by profession, government programmes promote the ideal of motherhood for indigenous women. The Prospera programme, for instance, provides financial benefits to help mothers feed their children, keep them in school and pay for health checks. Payments are made to the mother, as the parent most likely to look after the children’s health and education. He believes however, that this tends to reinforce the idea that above all, a woman should be a mother.
Statistics from INEGI show that in 2015, half of all households received support from government programmes. This figure is double the national average, and reflects Chiapas’s position as the poorest state in Mexico. “There are no other programmes for women. The support that does exist doesn’t improve their economic situation. Women come to depend on the programme, which “helps” them as mothers, but other than this, there are no opportunities for work, education or political participation” says Arana.
A culture of reporting abuse is needed
Maria Eugenia Perez, a member of the state congress, noted in a recent interview that the congress had passed laws to protect the rights of children and women. But what is now needed is a culture in which forced marriages are reported. “Raising the minimum age for marriage isn’t enough to eradicate forced marriages” she says. “What’s needed are policies to educate the public and transform the role that women and girls play in indigenous communities. But this can’t be achieved on its own. It requires a commitment from all three levels of government, and one which is focused on reducing poverty and improving the educational and economic conditions of Chiapas’ indigenous population” says David Vazquez.
For Karen Dianne Padilla, “changing the law is not enough. How can a girl, perhaps speaking only her indigenous language, poor, and vulnerable, take a bus, get herself to the municipal centre and then denounce a forced marriage? And who will provide for her? There’s no government programme or NGO to whom abuses can be reported, no- one who can provide confidentiality, protection, or above all, better life chances. What’s needed are the means to protect girls and teenagers, and to allow them to report abuse. At the moment there’s no register, nor even approximate statistics to indicate the scale of the problem" she added.
Alongside the efforts of NGOs and the Mexican state, Luz and Odilia continue their quiet work of helping girls to escape from forced marriages. The truth is that this is a phenomenon that the law has neither changed nor abolished.
Photos by Binisa Matus
Translated by the UK Zapatista Translation Service