NOTE: This story is translated and abridged from an article written by Patricia Chandomí and originally published by CIMAC Noticias. It is published here with the generous permission of the autor.*
I was eleven when I heard that they had come to claim me. I heard them drinking to celebrate the agreement. The day the deal was sealed, there were some pigs and some food ready … I fled. I was very scared. And then, I felt very guilty for everything that happened after I escaped from my village.
This story was told by Odilia López Álvarez, a indigenous women of Chol origins, now an activist in the Womens’ Rights Centre in Chiapas (Centro de Derecho de la Mujer), Mexico. Her’s is a story that has been told many times. In Chiapas it is still possible for men to obtain an eleven-year old “wife”, to provide them with domestic and sexual services.
It is unlikely this story will be the last one, despite the Federal Senate’s recent initiative to raise the minimum age for marriage to 18 in twenty-five state congresses and thus guarantee girls’ and teenage girls’ rights. The proposal was adopted in Chiapas and the state civil code was amended to only allow adults to marry.
Even so, it is questionable how much of an impact this will have within the indigenous communities of Chiapas, since marriages between minors are not usually celebrated according to state law, but only orally in the presence of “witnesses to the union”. These wedding are valid only in accordance with the local community’s “customs and practices” and are not registered. As a result it is difficult to know how many women and girls are forced to marry this way.
In terms of registered marriages, Mexican Institute of Statistics and Geography (INEGI) states that 17.3% of girls in Mexico are married before they are 18. This figure stands at 3.9% for boys. The UN estimates that 5.1% of children in Mexico are married before the age of 15.
CHILD MARRIAGE IN CHIAPAS
Within Mexico, Chiapas is the state with the second highest rate of child marriage. A report from the consulting firm Consultores en Administración y Políticas Públicas showed that there were 5, 234 underage marriages in Mexico in 2015. The states with the highest numbers were Guerrero (795), Chiapas (747), Mexico State (541), Coahuila (463) y Michoacán (454).
UNICEF states that girls from poorer households are more likely to be married as children.Los Altos is Chiapas’s poorest region. It contains 17 municipal governments: Aldama, Amatenango del Valle, Chalchihuitán, San Juan Chamula, Chenalhó, Huixtán, San Andrés Larráinzzar, Mitontic, Oxchuc, Pantelhó, San Cristóbal de las Casas, San Juan Cancuc, Santiago El Pinar, Tenejapa, Teopisca and Zinancantán. All have a high concentration of indigenous population. The INEGI states that Chiapas is home to a million girls, of whom, one third is indigenous.
Karen Dianne Padilla, an activist against child marriages says:
In some homes, girls are seen as a burden. Another mouth to feed, [someone else] to dress, buy shoes for. In other cases, they are seen as property. If they possess certain characteristics, [families] know that they can make some kind of profit from the payment the bridegroom will make.
María Eugenia Pérez Fernández, a member of the Committee for the Attention of Women and Girls in the State Congress said:
The sale of underage girls continues in Chiapas especially in the area of Los Altos, where they are even exchanged for material goods.
Mexico’s constitution recognises the right of indigenous communities to govern their affairs according to their own “custom and practices”. However, they are obliged to respect human rights. Child marriage is clearly not compatible with a respect for human rights. David Vázquez Hernández, a lawyer specialising in gender, points out that Mexico since 2003 has also adopted the Federal Law to Prevent and Eliminate Discrimination.
[This law] defines as discriminatory: the impediment to choosing a spouse or partner; using any type of custom and practices to infringe human dignity and rights; and, any practice that obstaculises the minimum necessary conditions for the health growth and development of children.
Karen Padilla notes:
There is tension between custom and uses and respect for human rights. Since the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (National Zapatista Liberation Army or EZLN) appeared in 1994, various non government agencies arrived in Chiapas to fight in favour of [indigenous] peoples’ right to autonomy in government. There was a lot of international solidarity for this. However, this autonomy has made the abuse of women and girls’ rights invisible.
According to the INEGI, there were a total of 12, 400 mothers under the ages of 15 in Chiapas in 2010, which make it the third state in Mexico with most teenage pregnancy. In 2016, Chiapas is now in first place. Of these, 510 are girls between 12 and 14.
FORCED MARRIAGES IN SAN JUAN CHAMULA
Talking to women in Los Altos is difficult. First you must get past the male authorities and conversations with women are always through men. This report is made with reports of women who have left their communities, those who have been widowed, separated, abandoned or have fled.
Marco Shilon, ex Secretary for Indigenous People and professor in the Law Faculty of the University Autonomous of Chiapas, explains that for the indigenous Totsil people of San Juan Chamula, individuals do not exist. In this cosmovision, accepting a husband is not a matter for the girl, but her family.
The bride doesn’t know the bridegroom. It is the suitor who chooses the bride and goes to ask her father and her mother for her hand in marriage. He takes presents: boxes of bread, bananas, soft drinks and posh (a local alcoholic beverage).
When the suitor is with the family, the father asks his daughter if she wants to marry him. The girl can spy on the man to see him. If she likes him she says yes. If she doesn’t like him, the suitor can insist up to ten times.
Manuel de la Cruz Santiz, local indigenous magistrate in San Juan Chamula, points out that in most indigenous communities, wives have the right to separation if the husband is very violent or when they no longer want to live together. If the man is responsible for the separation, he is required to pay one sum of 3, 000 pesos for each child and allow his wife a quarter of their home.
But, according to the traditions of San Juan Chamula, the bridegroom can return the bride if she is not a virgin, if she doesn’t know how to cook, or doesn’t like cleaning, or if they cry because they are missing their home. If this happens, the parents must return the gifts they have received, plus a payment of interest. Otherwise they will be fined and turned over to the local indigenous authorities.
Luz Santiz, from San Juan Chamula, recognises that girls are sold into marriage.
There are sales, but it isn’t in the interests of the parents to say so, because they benefit. […] My mother asked for 10, 000 pesos to pay for the wedding party, as they say. This is a way of asking for 10, 000 pesos for her daughter as my mother did not hold a party. She paid her debts with the money.
Luz remembers that her mother denied that the bridegroom had given her money. But she says she saw him giving her the money.
Darío [her husband] saw me as I was selling in the Santo Domingo handicraft market. I was 14. He gave me a piece of a telephone card with his mobile number on it and asked me to call him. I knew I had to use the card to phone him or he would think I had spent it on other things. So I called him, and he asked me out. I said yes, and we went to eat ice-cream. He bought me some shoes and we had our photograph taken.
Luz says she has no romantic interest in him.
My mistake was having my photograph taken with him because he used that to blackmail me into marrying him. He said, “I am going to show this to your parents in San Juan to show them that you have already gone out with me.” I decided it would be better to marry him. So, I went to live in his parents’ house. He mistreated me a lot. He raped me, all our sexual relations were rapes.
Margarita López is from Tojchuctik, in the municipality of Mitontic, one of the ten poorest municipalities in Mexico. She relates that she was sold to Juan Velasco López when she was 10, in exchange for 10 garrafones (very large bottles) of posh.
Juan did not just marry Margarita, but also took a second partner. According to Margarita, both women were forced to have sexual relations with him. Juan also repeatedly raped his oldest daughter and caused her to have two children.
Cecilia, Margarita’s oldest daughter, killed her father when he tried to rape another daughter. Margarita was blamed and imprisoned for seven years. Today she looks after her children and her mother’s children in her village.
According to the organization, Melel Xojobal, violence against girls and teenage girls is widespread in Chiapas. In 2008, 42% of women from Los Altos reported that they had been beaten or been humiliated as children. 7% reported sexual abuse. 41% of women said they had been victims of violence at the hands of their partners. 10% reported they had been sexually assaulted.
In our culture, we don’t talk about sex. Many of us get to our wedding nights not knowing what to expect. We’re only girls of 12, 13 or 14. Now my thoughts are different. I know my first sexual relation was rape. I didn’t want it. It hurt, I was scared and he forced himself onto me and carried on forcing me. Sex is not a moment we enjoy very much.
“THE LAW IS NOT ENOUGH”
In an interview last March, the local deputy María Eugenia Pérez, maintained that the State Congress had enacted a number of laws to protect women and girls’ rights in Chiapas. She argues that what is required is a culture which promotes the denunciation of abuses.
In response, David Vázquez argues that:
Raising the minimum age required to marry is not enough to eradicate forced marriage. We also need to promote public policies that raise awareness and transform the place that women and girls occupy within indigenous communities. But that is not enough, either. We need to commitment from all areas of government, a commitment to reducing poverty and bettering economic and education prospects for the indigenous communities in Chiapas.
Karen Dianne Padilla is more forceful:
The law is not enough. How can the authorities expect that a monolingual indigenous girl, poor and threatened, could take a bus to the municipal capital and report her forced marriage? Ha. And who is going to feed them? Where are they going to live?
We need a government programme, civil organizations that can receive reports in the villages themselves. Organizations that guarantee anonymity and offer protection and better life opportunities to these girls.
We need to urgently draw up mechanisms for reporting [forced marriage] and [offering] protection to these girls. There is no monitoring, no statistics that allow us to know the seriousness of this problem.
Meanwhile, Luz and Odilia carry on quietly rescuing and helping girls who flee forced marriages; a reality that the law has not changed.
*This report was written as part of the Mike O’Connor Fellowship at the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) and the Iniciativa para el periodismo de Investigación de las Américas, which ICFJ runs in partnership with Connectas.