SANTO DOMINGO – Natalia ran away from home in the Dominican Republic’s interior on the eve of her wedding day. She was 16 years old and was trying to flee from a marriage with a much older man whom she did not love.
But her mother chased her down, dragged her to the church and, while placing the bridal tiara on her head, issued the following threat: “If you say ‘no’ when they ask if you agree to marry him, I’ll kill you and I’ll kill myself.”
The memory of the beatings she had suffered at the hands of her mother when she had previously tried to end the relationship lent an undeniable credibility to the death threat.
The young girl thus had no choice but to heed her mother’s order and start a life with a man with whom she felt no affection; the two now have been a couple for 15 years and had four children together.
On her wedding day, Natalia (a fictitious name) found herself surrounded by several female teenage cousins who were all either already married or engaged – more examples of a harsh reality for girls in a country with one of the world’s highest rates of child marriage.
At least one in every five Dominican women either marry or enter into informal unions as minors, often times with men who are twice their age.
A pair of efforts through the court system and the legislative branch are now in the works to ban child marriage, which is currently legal for girls 15 years and older. But statistics show that the problem is so deep-rooted that legal restrictions alone are bound to be ineffective.
Indeed, the problem is even worse in the Dominican Republic than elsewhere in Latin America and the Caribbean because 12 percent of weddings or informal unions involve girls under the age of 15, more than twice the average for the region as a whole (5 percent), according to UNICEF.
There are several reasons for such a high number of forced child marriages, the Dominican Republic’s minister for women, Mayra Jimenez, told EFE, pointing to failed public policies, a “cultural problem” and a “problem of machismo.”
Other root causes also go some way in explaining this phenomenon, including expectations about escaping poverty, domestic violence, the hypersexualization of girls and religion.
The latter was the key factor in Natalia’s case: her mother could not conceive of the possibility of her daughter having more than one sexual partner in her lifetime. The maternal pressure even continued after the wedding, as she forced her daughter to satisfy her husband’s sexual appetite against her will.
“When I had to have relations with him. with someone I don’t love, who I didn’t love … he would often say when I didn’t want to, ‘I’m going to talk to your mother.’ And since my mom is strong, I’m afraid of her. She has a strong temper, (so) I gave in. There was no other way,” she said with resignation.
Natalia now says she has “gotten used to” her situation and perseveres with the relationship out of her sense of responsibility toward their four children.
Yorllina Cuevas was 16 when she met her future husband, then 28, while washing clothes in a canal in La Lista, a village in the southwestern province of Barahona, a region whose poverty and child marriage rates are among the nation’s highest.
He was surprised to see the bruises on Yorllina’s face and upper chest that her father’s constant beatings had inflicted. For her, this man 12 years her senior was a means of escape.
“It was about seeking protection. My father was very abusive toward me and my mother. It was about seeking refuge, not because I thought I was prepared for a home or a family,” she said.
A few months later, the two moved to the capital as a married couple. Yorllina became pregnant right away and discovered the overbearing nature of her husband, who did not let her go out with friends or choose what clothes she wore.
“It was really tough for me. And with quite a big belly, and the first time I was pregnant, and with none of my family around. I felt as if I’d been kidnapped, even though I knew the kidnapper,” Yorllina said.
At the age of 21, Yorllina left her husband and met a man who was 20 years older than she and who would become the father of her second child. But due to pressure from her father, the relationship ended.
Years later, she met a man her age who later became the father of her third child, although that relationship also fell apart due to his infidelities.
Yorllina now lives alone with her three children in a house with cement walls and a tin roof that looks out onto a dirt road in her hometown.
One of the most palpable consequences of early unions are teen pregnancies, which entail greater risk for both the mother and the fetus.
Nearly one-fifth (19.1 percent) of Dominican women and girls 19 years and younger have been pregnant at one time in their lives, according to the Enhogar official survey that was published in September.
Three of every four teen pregnancies in that Caribbean nation, moreover, are the result of an early union.
At the age of just 15, Maiky Adames became pregnant with twins. But one of them died during the Caesarian section that was performed before she was eight months pregnant, a surgery she almost did not survive.
“The boy lasted 17 days in the incubator. He was dying, then he would make a recovery …,” Maiky recalled. After multiple hospitalizations, her child was finally out of danger. Even so, the lasting effects of that episode for him include difficulty speaking and 75 percent hearing loss.
“It was a very difficult process that not all young women would tolerate,” she said.
Another of the most obvious consequences for women of early unions is poverty. The need to raise and provide for their children, often without the father’s presence, leaves many of these young women mired in dire economic circumstances.
Case in point is the situation of Jeidy Dotel. The relationship with her first partner ended just after she turned 17 and their baby was just “six or seven months” old. She had no choice but to leave aside her studies to care for her infant.
“I had to give up my studies for two years. I had to finish high school really informally, just going once a week … Then I enrolled in university, I left university, later I returned and re-enrolled…,” she said.
Years later, after marrying a second time, she finally earned her degree in childhood education.
Jeidy has been unable to start her career as a teacher due to the pandemic, but in the meantime, she has been using an alphabet and multiplication table to provide instruction to her own children while also helping her husband run the small food shop they operate outside their modest home in Las Maguanas, a town in the western province of San Juan.
Like Jeidy, Natalia, Yorllina and Maiky also interrupted their studies due to relationships that quickly led to pregnancies.
After giving up the idea of studying nursing, Maiky moved from one job to another until taking a beauty course; she now makes a living as a hairdresser, attending to customers at her own home.
Yorllina had begun a nursing program but had to give it up when she separated from her first husband and returned to her hometown. She now supports three children on the just 6,000 pesos ($103) a month she earns from selling lottery tickets.
Natalia had planned on embarking on a career before becoming a mother. But after having one child after another, it took her five years to complete a course needed to finish high school.
She told EFE she not only had to give up her studies but also relinquish her childhood.
“I had to leave behind my adolescence, give up on my friendships, on doing what I wanted, on developing as a teenager, experiencing things. I haven’t lived … that opportunity was taken away from me,” she lamented.
At present, the Dominican Republic’s Constitutional Court is hearing challenges to the constitutionality of a pair of laws related to child marriage: one dating to 1884 that allows girls as young as 15 to marry and another enacted in 1997 that allows a man to avoid prison time for removing a minor from a home or impregnating her as long as he marries her.
A ruling in that tribunal could come as soon as this month.
Meanwhile, a bill that aims to ban child marriage could be voted on in the Dominican lower house as early as Wednesday.
“There’s a majority consensus in society that child marriage has to be eradicated form our Civil Code,” said Jimenez, the head of the Ministry of Women.
Nevertheless, she cautioned that child marriage is only part of the problem; the bigger issue, she said, is stamping out early unions, which are larger in number and often completely outside the bounds of the law.
The most alarming figures are seen among the poorest 20 percent of the population, since 59 percent of girls and female adolescents either marry or enter into informal unions prior to the age of 18 and 23 percent do so before the age of 15.
UNICEF’s representative in the Dominican Republic, Rosa Encarte, agrees with that analysis, noting that changing the law is an essential step but still insufficient.
“Child marriage and early unions are not perceived in the communities, particularly in the poorest ones, as a serious problem,” she said.
The fact that legal barriers to child marriage have not been erected to date is not surprising, considering that relationships with minors are so normalized in the Dominican Republic that there have even been instances among lawmakers themselves.
The most recent headline-grabbing case in the Caribbean nation has been that of a former lower house lawmaker and ex-senator, 64-year-old Bernardo Aleman, who has been accused of sex crimes involving two minors.
The case has been before the Supreme Court for two years but could be moved to an ordinary court after Aleman lost his seat in August.
Aleman refused to speak with EFE for this report.
Another case that made waves in the Dominican Republic was that of lawmaker Ramon “Papo” Fernandez, who spent six months behind bars in 2013 for taking a 13-year-old girl from her home – a minor with whom he had sexual relations for six months.
But even though the Supreme Court ruled that there was proof of a sexual relationship, Fernandez was not tried for statutory rape, a crime punishable by up to 15 years in prison.
After he completed his sentence, Fernandez returned to the lower house and recovered his title as honorable member of that legislative body.