Stephanie Tax is a 14-year-old girl who lives in a rural community in Totonicapán, Guatemala. She is not an ordinary girl. She is a leader of the #18Sí14No initiative, the purpose of which is to fight against child marriage. This crusade helped change the law in Guatemala, raising the minimum age for marriage to 18 for both genders.
Child marriage has negative effects on the lives of girls and boys. In Guatemala, almost 20% of marriages are among people under 19. The law used to allow girls to be married at 14 and boys at 16. The younger the girl, the greater the risks for her and her unborn baby. It limits the baby’s healthy development, specially its right to health and education. Early marriage reduces adolescents’ personal, economic and social growth.
Stephanie says, “the result of a child marriage, like any other marriage, will sooner or later be a baby, which is not a healthy thing, since it will mean that a child is taking care of another child.” Neither is it good for a person or society for that child to have to drop out of school to raise a family.
Life goes on at the same pace as before but with new paradigms. At her young age, Stephanie’s priorities are very clear: first school, second school, and third school. For her, marriage, children and her own family may be part of her plans, but much later on.
She was lucky, since her mother and grandparents have always supported her, which is not easy in the traditional community where she lives. Cultural aspects, machismo and certain erroneous social norms have promoted early marriage for centuries.
Stephanie notes that older generations see the marriage of 14 or 15-year-old girls as something perfectly normal. Some parents arrange marriages for the purpose of getting a dowry and other benefits for themselves and their daughters, regardless of what the girl thinks or feels. Sometimes they force 14-year-old girls to marry 30 or 40-year-old men.
When Stephanie goes out with her friends, in their conversations they imagine what their lives would be like if they were married at that young age, and they don’t like the scenario, since it would destroy their goals and dreams.
The #18Sí14No initiative is part of the work done by UNICEF and its partners to raise the age for marriage from 14 to 18 for both sexes, with the active participation of adolescents and young people all over the country, such as the members of the Civilian Association Paz Joven Guatemala and the Research, Development and Comprehensive Education Association, IDEI, which adopted this cause as their own.
Stephanie and hundreds of thousands of other adolescents mobilized all over the country, informing other young people, fostering discussion and reflection on child marriage, collecting signatures to request that Congress change the legislation and exerting strong pressure through social media with the hashtag “#18Sí14No”. Finally, in November 2015, the Congress of Guatemala raised the minimum age for marriage to 18 for both sexes.
UNICEF and its partners promoted this initiative, but they also realize that legislative change alone is not enough to solve this problem unless it goes hand in hand with cultural and social changes. That is why they continue working with groups of young people to monitor marriage records at the local level.
The law stipulates that exceptions may be made for a boy, girl or adolescent to get married at 16, provided a judge authorizes it. UNICEF and its partners, especially young people, are trying to eliminate that exception.
One of Stephanie’s most important goals is to study Journalism, hoping as a professional journalist to do research and inform the Guatemalan population about the main problems that exist in the country.
Stephanie is very much aware of the changes that have taken place in the world and the different roles taken on by women. She believes that men and women have the same abilities and should share responsibilities. “The world changes and people also have to change”, says Stephanie in closing.