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Dominican Republic Government Takes a Stand Against Child Marriage

On World Children's Day, IJM applauds the critical steps that the Dominican President and House of Representatives have taken this week to protect children.

On November 16th, Luis Abinader, who assumed power as the new president only four months ago, assured that his Government will have zero tolerance for child marriage and early unions. He also presented a series of action steps to eradicate the laws that allow girls and boys under 18 years old to marry. IJM especially commends the creation of a Cabinet for Children and Adolescents, chaired by the first lady, Raquel Arbaje.

According to a 2019 UNICEF report, one in four young women in Latin America and the Caribbean was married or entered into early union before turning 18 years old. This regional rate has remained the same for the past 25 years. Change needs to happen to stop this trend, otherwise, the region will have one of the highest rates of child marriage in the world by 2030. The same study shows that the Dominican Republic has the highest rates of child marriage in the region, with 36% of young women marrying before their 18th birthday.

“It is time to make a change in the course of the destiny and lives of our children and adolescents, and secure their holistic education and full development. As adults, it is our duty to ensure children are protected,” Abinader shared in a press conference.

The new Cabinet will create and execute a plan for the prevention of early unions and review the current strategy for reducing teenage pregnancies. It will be formed by the Ministries of Women, Public Health, Education, Labor, Sport, Culture, and Youth, as well as the Progressing with Solidarity Program (PROSOLI), the National Health Service, the National Institute for Comprehensive Early Childhood Care (INAIPI), Dominican Child Welfare Agency (CONANI) and the Public Prosecutor's Office.

On Wednesday, November 18th, the House of Representatives in the Dominican Republic unanimously approved the elimination of two articles[1] of the Civil Code that currently create a legal loophole that enables early unions and allows children as young as 11 years old to be forced into marriage with the permission of their parents and a special order issued by a judge. “Early unions with minors never reach the civil registry but are one of the most common ways to mask child marriage. That percentage is likely the majority,” explains Sonia Hernández, Associate Director of Public Justice System Strengthening for IJM.

By unanimously approving these changes in the Dominican Civil Code, congressmen and women are taking a strong stand to end the widespread practice and prioritize the protection that thousands of children in the country deserve.

After the approval from the House of Representatives, the Senate must review and approve these changes. If approved, the legal exceptions that allow child marriage and early unions would finally be eliminated from the Civil Code. Congress has been evaluating a petition to reform the civil code for over 10 years, and if approved by both houses, this would be a critical historic change.

Additionally, since June, International Justice Mission (IJM) has urged the Dominican Supreme Court to declare child marriage unconstitutional, as it is a violation of the fundamental rights of children and adolescents. Since then, over 15 other civil society organizations and coalitions have joined their voices to demand change. On August 27th, the Supreme Court had a first hearing to review this petition, and the country currently awaits a decision.

Although this was a week to commemorate in the fight to protect children from being forced into child marriage or early unions in the Dominican Republic, there is still more to be done. IJM continues to urge the Dominican Supreme Court to declare child marriage unconstitutional. ‘‘We insist on the request because the petition we filed not only asks for the elimination of child marriage but also advocates for a change to Law 659 on the Acts of Civil Status, which currently does not hold accountable those who sexually abuse children or adolescents if they later marry them,” explains Sonia, emphasizing that “it is not enough if only Congress approves the elimination of child marriage. The court must legislate to ensure this critical change’s sustainability over time.”

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[1] Article 144 provides a loophole for child marriage and Article 145 provides a loophole for early unions.

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