BOGOTA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Child marriage is widely accepted in Brazil, where girls seek older husbands to escape from sexual and other violence in the home, or because of teenage pregnancies or the lack of job opportunities, according to new research.
There has been scant research in Brazil on child marriage, and little has been done to tackle it, researchers from Plan International, Brazil's Federal University of Para and the gender equality charity Promundo said.
"Child marriage in Brazil is very normalized and accepted," said Alice Taylor, lead author of the report, whose researchers say it is the first study of its kind in Brazil.
Brazil is ranked fourth in the world in the number of girls married to or living with a partner by the age of 15, with 877,000 women aged 20 to 24 reporting they were married by 15, according to a Brazilian government census in 2010.
Legally, Brazilians can marry at 16 if both parents consent, or earlier in certain circumstances such as pregnancy.
The researchers examined child marriage in the two states with the highest prevalence of the practice in the country - the northern state of Para, and Maranhao in the northeast.
"There’s an assumption ... that child marriage ... happens only in the most remote and rural areas of Brazil. But the research shows it happens also in urban areas and in state capitals, like Belem and Sao Luis," Taylor told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a telephone interview.
Child marriage in Brazil and across Latin America is "mostly informal and consensual," unlike South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa which have a "more ritualized and formal nature of the practice", the report found.
In Brazil it is fueled by sexual and other violence at home, often at the hands of relatives and stepfathers, which drives girls to seek refuge with older men outside the family, Taylor said.
"Child marriage is an expression of a girl's limited opportunities in terms of education and employment. They get married based on an expectation that their life will be better and that they will have more independence, and that expectation is usually unfulfilled."
Researchers interviewed government officials, men married to girls, and girls aged 12 to 18 married to or living with men who were on average nine years older.
They found that pregnant girls can come under pressure from relatives to get married to protect the family's reputation and in the hope of receiving more financial support from the child's father.
"My mum thought it was a good idea to marry, to resolve it (the pregnancy), to avoid the gossip that would have happened," a 15-year-old pregnant girl who had married a man aged 20, was quoted as saying in the report.
Researchers also interviewed men aged 25 to 60 who are married to or live with girls.
"For a man, the responses we most often heard were desire to marry a young girl because she is easier to control or because of a belief that younger girls are more attractive," Taylor said.
Efforts to stem child marriage have largely focused on sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, where it is most prevalent, and have ignored Latin America, the report said.
Early marriage makes it more likely that girls will drop out of school, and campaigners say it also increases the risks of exploitation, sexual violence, domestic abuse and death in childbirth.
Child marriage also affects a country's overall development, a problem that will be highlighted this year when the United Nations finalizes its sustainable development goals at the end of the year.
Stopping child marriage and forced marriage is one of the proposed development goals.
Reporting By Anastasia Moloney; Editing by Tim Pearce. Reuters Messaging: Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, corruption and climate change. Visit www.trust.org