By Anastasia Moloney
BOGOTA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Rampant gang violence and drug turf wars in parts of Central America are fuelling child marriage as girls seek to marry or couple with gang members and older men as a form of protection, researchers say.
Traditionally child marriage has been most prevalent among indigenous communities in rural areas across Central America.
But humanitarian groups working in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, say anecdotal evidence gathered in the past five years shows drug-fueled gang violence and organized crime is driving more girls to get married in cities.
"We are seeing and hearing that increasing numbers of girls are getting married and coupled to seek protection from gang violence and intimation from gangs," said Amanda Rives, Latin America advocacy director for the charity World Vision.
"Being in a couple with a gang member may give the girl and her family some level of protection from one gang, but may leave them more vulnerable to rival gangs," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a telephone interview.
In El Salvador and Honduras - countries with the world's highest murder rates - entire city neighborhoods are controlled by powerful street gangs, known as maras.
In May alone, El Salvador recorded 594 murders, believed to be the deadliest month since the country's civil war ended in 1992.
The letters "MS" of the Mara Salvatrucha and graffiti of rival gang Barrio 18 is scrawled on buildings, marking gang territory. The gangs impose control through extortion, sexual violence, threats, killings and forced recruitment of children.
"Having a partner in a gang can be perceived as something that is much safer than being on the street alone. Girls do it out of fear," said Alejandra Colom, senior program director at the Population Council in Guatemala.
Although there is scant data on the impact of gang violence and child marriage, it may be seen as a form of protection.
"Dating the top dog, whether it's the guy on the soccer team or the leader of the gang, gives a girl some status and this is related to protection and relative - and temporary - power," Colom said.
Child marriage in Central America is also fueled by sexual violence at home, often at the hands of relatives and stepfathers, which drives girls to seek refuge with older men.
"Sexual violence against girls in the home causes many girls to want to leave home," said Ana Elena Badilla, an adviser on gender and youth at the United Nations Population Fund.
Worldwide, some 15 million girls are married off each year, depriving them of education and opportunities, and child marriage is most prevalent in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.
Campaigners say child marriage increases the chance of childbirth complications and child brides are more likely to be victims of sexual and domestic abuse.
While most Latin American countries ban marriage until 18, children can get married at a younger age with the permission of parents or a judge. In Guatemala, for example, under such exceptions girls can get married aged 14, while boys at 16.
(Reporting By Anastasia Moloney, editing by Ros Russell; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit www.trust.org)