By Anastasia Moloney
BOGOTA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A year after Guatemala passed a law banning child marriage, poor families who regard girls as a financial burden are still marrying them off as prolonged drought plunges many into deeper poverty, campaigners say.
Guatemala has one of the highest rates of child marriage in Latin America, long driven by poverty and cultural acceptance especially among the country's Maya indigenous communities, with around one third of girls married by 18.
Each year more than 15 million girls worldwide are married before they turn 18, campaign group Girls Not Brides says.
Under the new law, the minimum age for marriage in Guatemala was raised to 18 but children can still get married at 16 with a judge's permission.
Since the ban on child marriage, judges have approved 12 of 37 requests for marriage for children aged 16 or 17.
In one petition for marriage that was overturned by a judge, a 16-year-old girl told the judge her father was forcing her to marry a man more than double her age so he could pay off a debt.
"The girl told the judge she wanted to have nothing to do with the man and that she was getting married because her father needed to pay a debt," said Debora Cobar, head of charity Plan International in Guatemala and a former children's state prosecutor.
In some rural communities, girls are still sold off in exchange for cattle, cash and or plots of land, Cobar said.
Others are living with older men, pushed into marriage as families struggle to put food on the table or break with long-held traditions, she said.
"Girls are exploited. They become a servant, a sex slave," Cobar told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by telephone.
Two consecutive years of drought in Guatemala and other parts of Central America has exacerbated poverty and hunger in the agriculture-dependent country since mid-2014.
"The drought means girls face an increased risk of getting married or living with an older man because the drought affects a household's income and people are worse off," said Marilis Barrientos, advocacy director for World Vision in Guatemala.
"This puts more pressure on girls to have to find a man to live with and leave home," she said.
Child marriage deprives girls of education, keeps them in poverty, and puts them at greater risk of domestic and sexual violence, according to the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA).
One key way to prevent child marriage is to educate girls about their rights and ensure they go to school.
"The law is important but it's not enough," said Aida Siman, UNFPA's representative in Guatemala.
"When girls aren't in school, they are more likely to get married early and get pregnant."
Local government youth community liaison officer Alida Maczchen says spreading the message about the marriage ban and ensuring girls know about their rights remains a challenge.
Travelling to rural areas to try to persuade parents against marrying off their girls, she says some communities remain unaware of the ban.
"Around 10 percent of the communities I've visited have opposed the law because of machismo and because of their economic situation," said Maczchen, who was 12 when her mother's cousin tried to married her off to an older man.
Given Guatemala's patriarchal and macho culture that tends to view women as child-bearers, Maczchen said most people are surprised she is still unmarried at the age of 21.
"I would have had several children by now and dropped out of school. I broke away from those chains," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a telephone interview.
(Reporting by Anastasia Moloney, editing by Katie Nguyen.; 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 http://news.trust.org)