Ellas Deciden - Maria Sofia
In Latin America, as in the rest of the world, child marriage disproportionately affects girls. With poverty being one of the factors that also drives child marriage in this region, girls living in poor areas are especially vulnerable to this practice. Human Rights Watch reports that Latin America is the only region with a high rate of child marriage where there has not been a significant decline in child marriage over the past 30 years. Argentina is one of a few countries that do not report data on child marriage to UNICEF. However, according to a recent national census, Argentina has more than 340,000 adolescents aged 14 to 19 years old that are married or cohabiting, of which 230,000 are girls and adolescent women.
Maria Sofia is a human and children rights activist from Argentina who started Ellas Deciden (They decide), an advocacy project to spread awareness about forced child marriage in the country. She explains that defining the marriage as forced sheds light on the structural gender inequalities that are inherent in the context of forming a union between an adult and a minor. The conditions that determine whether marriage is by choice are essentially informed by the low expectations that are held in respect to the future of girls. Maria explains that a decision to marry before the age of 18 is often informed by the domestic situation in which many of the girls exist. Girls and adolescents may seek marriage as an exit strategy from violent home environments, and families may assume that an early union will protect their daughters from violence, but they often end up facing violence, abuse and control from their partners, who do not allow them to work , study or go out alone. A form of violence that can also be considered socially accepted in many Latin American societies.
Another reason that leads many girls to enter early and often forced unions is the desire to flee poverty but what really happens is that they lose their economic autonomy in the process. Girls trapped in these types of relationships generally do not have autonomy in economic matters, either due to lack of schooling or because of their role as primary caretakers for children at home. Girls are often viewed as a financial burden in many communities, so parents would marry them off for financial gain through dowry, gifts etc. This is reinforced by patriarchal norms that devalue and commercialize girls and adolescents who face multiple obstacles to participate in the economy, with few opportunities to earn an income, study, or achieve financial independence. But the problem is that these unions are often made with men who are older, more experienced, more educated and have better economic prospects, thus victimizing girls and placing them in an unequal position vis-à-vis their spouse.This, as mentioned earlier, is often accompanied by gender violence within the private sphere of the home.
Maria wanted to launch an awareness campaign to educate girls about their rights and show them alternatives to financial independence, but she was faced with a unique conundrum. In Latin America and the Caribbean, informal marriages are so common and are hence not accredited or recognized by the Church or the State. The informality of these unions makes it difficult to count them or have sufficient data to demonstrate the extent and seriousness of this problem in Argentina. Nevertheless, Maria started Ellas Deciden with the objective of spreading awareness about the endemic of child marriage in Argentina within a framework of gender equality and childrens’ rights. The campaign utilizes social networks as a powerful transformation tool, using it to spread campaigns and messages that reach girls and adolescents, that are attractive to them, and are developed in a language familiar to their age.
With the aim of allowing girls, boys and adolescents to make free and informed decisions with the full guarantee of respect for their rights. “Our campaign aims to reach the widest diversity of girls and adolescents, this is why some materials will be adapted to indigenous languages and sign language. The graphic and audio pieces we create will be designed so that they are light and occupy little space, to be able to be disseminated through WhatsApp and can therefore be viewed in rural communities with little access to mobile data,” says Maria. Rather than using language that victimizes girls and strips them of any agency, the campaign will seek to position the power of girls, adolescents and young people as agents and strategic actors that contribute to local development, to transform from their visions and experiences to decide on their bodies, communities and territories.
In addition to the online campaign, Maria and her team at Ellsa Deciden will also engage civil society organizations that work on topics related to child marriage, gender equality and female empowerment to create programs that offer the girls training, education and employment opportunities so that a clear alternative is offered to them and so that they feel like they have the power to decide their future. Finally, the Ellas Deciden team will seek to engage law and policy makers to work on a framework to protect children and adolescents from the perils of forced child marriage.
With the help of Peace First, the team of Ellas Deciden was able to complete the first phase of the campaign. Maria is currently working with the Peace First team to accelerate her project and work on the next phase. Watch her talk about future plans for Ellas Deciden here.