Saturday, March 15, 2014

The Child Bride

My grandmother used to have a saying that described a particularly impressive person. Manuela was the "brightest bulb on the block;" sweet, smart and intuitive. When I was with her, I knew what was going on in the room by watching her eyes; they took in detail, processed it and mirrored back the meaning to anyone quick enough to observe the process. She had a serenity about her that denied the hardships of living in a single parent household in remote northern Guatemala.
This photo of her in 2013 shows what is special about her...the glow, the purity of her smile, the hope that her life will offer more opportunity than her mother's did. As the oldest daughter of five children, Manuela was a role model for her siblings, often acting as a surrogate mother when the younger children needed something.

Manuela, (L) with her scholar award, October '13
In February of this year, sixteen year old Manuela married a young man in her village that she has known for a long time, and because she had so much potential, I am seeking understanding about why.

As with most youth her age, this new bride's fertility will most likely make her a young mother within the year. Marrying under the age of sixteen makes Manuela four times more likely to die in childbirth. She will no longer continue her education, now that she lives in her in law's home and will be busy helping with household work.  Few Mayan women ever divorce, no matter the circumstances. Making such a major decision at a young age dictates Manuela's future in every sense of the word.

It is easy, from my position of fortune here in the states, to make unwarranted judgement on this situation. I'm fighting feelings of anger at Candalaria, Manuela's mother. This family has been in our circle of concern for three years. We built Candalaria a house, we continue to educate her children, we meet their basic needs for furniture and clothing, and we feed the family $100 worth of food staples monthly. Why then, we wonder, was this youthful marriage necessary?

Manuela's father, who died after illegally crossing the U.S. border five years ago, had favored the relationship between these two young people.The families knew each other and despite her excellent scholastic progress in her village school, Manuela knew that once school was over, there were no opportunities for gainful employment within hundreds of miles of her home. In her culture, 40% of Mayan girls will marry before they turn eighteen.
Candalaria tells us that the new in laws promised to help feed Manuela's siblings if she agreed to the marriage. 

Manuela's mountains; beauty but little economic opportunity

  That feels like failure
No mother should have to marry her daughter off for food. Especially when Finding Freedom has been supplying the family with monthly food staples for years. But food prices in Guatemala have risen almost 30% in most areas. One hundred dollars a month stretches our budget but it doesn't go far enough to feed Candalaria's children adequately. 
Those of us who work in Guatemala know that the truth lies somewhere in the middle of any situation involving this complex culture. I know that Candalaria loves her eldest daughter, I've seen the love manifested in gestures and glances. Our board members understand the realities of life in the beautiful but severe mountains of Guatemala. Those hardships, and the culture, made this the right decision for this family. 
It is not our place to judge, only to support. Just like with our own children. Either way, it is a struggle.

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