Forced Marriage Overseas: Guatemala
Individuals from the United States may face challenges if trying to avoid and/or escape forced marriages in Guatemala. While the country has enacted reforms to its legal code and launched programs to address gender-based violence, protections are still often lacking, particularly in certain regions. Violence against women and children remains widespread, with domestic violence and the continuation of child marriage of particular concern.
For further information and guidance for individuals from the U.S. that are facing or fleeing a forced marriage in Guatemala, please contact the Forced Marriage Initiative.
Marriage in Guatemala
Guatemala recognizes both formal civil marriages and de facto (common law) marriages which are recognized after a couple lives together continuously for three years and declare their union before a mayor or notary.1 The legal minimum age for marriage was recently raised from 14 for girls and 16 for boys to age 18 for both boys and girls. Forced marriage is illegal in Guatemala, though prosecution is inconsistent due to legal and cultural hurdles. Despite the law, marriage below the legally permissible age for girls still occurs. Child marriage is more common in rural Guatemala and is driven by tradition, poverty, discriminatory gender norms and a lack of access to education.2
Divorce and annulment are both available under Guatemalan law and must be mutually agreed upon or based on a cause recognized by statute.3 Fraud, force, and lack of consent do not constitute grounds for divorce under Guatemalan law. Instead, these would be grounds for annulment which can be an arduous process with a high burden of proof.4
The laws on divorce are, in most ways, gender-neutral on their face. The few exceptions are in grounds for divorce that do not necessarily apply equally, such as pregnancy beginning prior to the celebration of marriage. And while the law is intended to be gender-neutral, this does not guarantee that the law would be applied in a gender neutral way.5
Potential Risks and Protections in Country
Forced marriage is prohibited by law and may be prosecuted as a form of human trafficking6 and marriage entered into under duress is voidable by judicial annulment proceedings.
It is difficult to estimate the number of child and forced marriages occurring in Guatemala, as many such marriages are in rural communities, often times with de facto or common law marriages, where statistics are not tracked.7 Until recently, girls as young as age 14 could legally be married with parental consent, although there are stories of girls marrying at ages even younger.8,9
Guatemala has a number of laws in place to protect women and girls from domestic abuse; however, many of the laws are not effectively enforced and Guatemala has a long history of impunity with respect to the prosecution of charges of domestic violence10 and child abuse. An estimated ninety-eight percent (98%) of cases involving the violent deaths of women are never adjudicated11 and Guatemala suffers from the second highest rate of child murder in the world.12
Guatemala only recently suspended Article 200 of the Penal Code, which allowed a rapist to avoid prosecution by marrying the rape victim13 which understandably encouraged the practice of rapists forcing their victims into marriage.14 Other legal barriers remain in place that make it difficult to prosecute sexual crimes against women, such as allowing women to “forgive” their attackers, placing women at risk of duress and coercion to protect their attackers from prosecution.15 This reflects a cultural belief that presents a separate, practical obstacle to enforcing laws against forced marriage and child marriage.
While the Law Against Femicide requires the government to provide free legal support to victims, a lack of funding hinders the effectiveness of counsel.16 Public attorneys and government assistance centers do provide free legal assistance to victims, but there is an insufficient number of attorneys available to help all women, and most victims are unable to pursue their claims without the assistance of counsel.17 Furthermore, the government has only established two shelters, with a combined capacity of sixty (60) people and those shelters do not permit male residents over 12 years of age, leaving women with teenage sons without shelter options.18
Special Challenges in Returning to the United States
U.S. women and minors do not need special permission to depart Guatemala, however, it is possible those trying to exit may run into issues at the border (i.e., with airline rules or governmental officials) and individuals should always check the exit requirements for Guatemala for the most up to date information.
Assistance for Individuals from the United States
- The Tahirih Justice Center Forced Marriage Initiative
We are available to help individuals from the United States who are facing or fleeing forced marriage in Guatemala, including providing phone, text, and email support, connecting with the U.S. government and local resources, and coordinating shelter and services back in the United States.
- The U.S. State Department
The State Department is available to assist U.S. citizens that are victims of forced marriage with replacement of travel documents and return travel to the United States. For updated information and travel alerts, please visit the department’s webpage on international travel in Guatemala.
- U.S. Embassy in Guatemala City
Contact the Embassy in the case of an emergency.
Tel: +(502) 2326-4000 or +(502) 2331-2354 (after hours emergency)
1 Guatemala: Information on common law marriages, United States Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services, (January 20, 2000) available at http://www.refworld.org/docid/3ae6a6a340.html
2 Programs to address child marriage: Framing the problem, Population Council, at 1 (January 2011) available at http://www.popcouncil.org/uploads/pdfs/TABriefs/14_ChildMarriage.pdf (hereinafter “Population Council 2011”); Assessing the multiple disadvantages of Mayan girls: The effects of gender, ethnicity, poverty, and residence on education in Guatemala, Population Council, at 3 (June 2007) available at http://www.popcouncil.org/uploads/pdfs/TABriefs/PGY_Brief16_Guatemala.pdf; Girls Not Brides – Guatemala, available at http://www.girlsnotbrides.org/child-marriage/guatemala/
3 Marriage of U.S. Citizens in Guatemala, Embassy of the United States in Guatemala, available at http://guatemala.usembassy.gov/acs_marriage_guatemala.html
4 Guatemalan Civil Code (2010)
5 Emery, Robert, Cultural Sociology of Divorce: An Encyclopedia, Volume 1, p.523 (2013) available at https://books.google.com/booksid=wzJdSIfeeTQC&pg=PA523&dq=cultural+sociology+of+divorce+guatemala
6 See Consideration of reports submitted by States parties under Article 18 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women: Seventh periodic reports of States parties – Guatemala, United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, CEDAW/C/GUA/7, at 77-78
7 Population Council, Assessing the multiple disadvantages of Mayan girls: The effects of gender, ethnicity, poverty, and residence on education in Guatemala, Population Council, at 3 (June 2007) available at http://www.popcouncil.org/uploads/pdfs/TABriefs/PGY_Brief16_Guatemala.pdf
8 Guatemalan congress raises minimum age for marriage to 18, The Associated Press (Nov. 5, 2015), available at http://www.cnsnews.com/news/article/guatemalan-congress-raises-minimum-age-marriage-18
9 Consideration of reports submitted by States parties under Article 18 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women: Combined third and fourth periodic reports of States parties – Guatemala, United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, CEDAW/C/GUA/3-4, at 80 (Mar. 20, 2001) (English translation) available at http://www.refworld.org/docid/3d6393484.html
10 The Carter Center, Country Profile: Guatemala, available at http://www.cartercenter.org/peace/human_rights/defenders/countries/guatemala.html
12 Michael Sheen, Why Guatemala is one of the worse places to be a child, The Telegraph, (March 9, 2015) available at http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/centralamericaandthecaribbean/guatemala/11457584/Why-Guatemala-is-one-of-the-worst-places-in-the-world-to-be-a-child.html
13 See Guatemala: Amnesty International Submission to the UN Universal Periodic Review, Amnesty International, AMR 34/001/2008, at 2 (May 2008), available at https://www.amnesty.org/en/documents/AMR34/001/2008/en/
14 See Seelinger, K.T., Forced Marriage and Asylum: Perceiving the Invisible Harm, 42 Columbia Human Rights L. Rev. 55, 84 (2010)
15 See Katherine Ruhl, Guatemala’s Femicides and the Ongoing Struggle for Women’s Human Rights: Update to CGRS’s 2005 Report Getting Away with Murder, 18 Hastings Women’s L.J. 199, 217-18 (2006)
16 Id. at p. 288-289
17 Id. at p. 289
18 U.S. Department of State, U.S. Passports & International Travel, Country Information, Guatemala, available at http://travel.state.gov/content/passports/english/country/guatemala.html