By Manuel Perez Bella
Santo Domingo, Nov 17 (efe-epa).- 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.