Girls in Guatemala challenge traditions of child marriage
Activist Joseline Velásquez Morales helps students advocate for legislation against child marriage and for sexual and reproductive health education.
Growing up in a low-income neighbourhood in Guatemala City, Joseline Velásquez Morales saw how social pressures and financial instability forced girls around her — including her own sisters — to drop out of school and get married. Even her mom didn’t study past the sixth grade. It wasn’t just Joseline’s community. Early marriage is common across Guatemala, where 30% of girls are married before their 18th birthday.
But Joseline wanted a different future for herself.
At age 12, Joseline started attending workshops and meetings held by local organisations to learn how to advocate for her rights and the rights of other girls. Thanks to her parents’ support and her own determination, she graduated from secondary school and enrolled in university to study journalism. She also began working with the organisation GOJoven Guatemala, which trains young women to speak out against gender inequality, early marriage and teenage pregnancies.
Determined to give girls a platform to speak out on issues they faced, Joseline continued to work with GOJoven while earning her degree. Eventually she assumed the role of national political coordinator for the organisation, where her job involves leading girls in advocating for legislation against child marriage and for sexual and reproductive health education in Guatemalan schools.
“As part of my job, I spend most of my days in Congress arguing with congressmen,” she shares. Navigating a male-dominated space where conservative political groups don’t believe issues like reproductive health, sexual harassment and domestic violence are the government’s responsibility is a challenge.
Furthermore, Joseline works to ensure the government considers youth voices and generational differences when making policies. “Adults are the majority in decision-making spaces. Young people now are living in a different world than those adults,” Joseline explains. “Technology is a great example of this. Girls are being harassed online now. This couldn’t happen to the previous generation because they didn’t grow up with phones, internet and social media. Adults don’t see the problems youth encounter today or how the problems that existed beforehand and weren’t solved then are worse now. Young people have their own perspective on situations [that] older generations don’t understand. We need to listen to them because they see problems and solutions we don’t.”
With GOJoven, Joseline leads workshops to teach girls like 22-year-old Ketzal'í Sipac Patal how to speak out on the issues that affect them, talk to politicians and initiate advocacy campaigns. Ketzal’í is Maya Kaqchikel, Mayan peoples native to the midwestern highlands of Guatemala. Rates of child marriage and early unions are worse among Mayan communities, which make up about 40% of Guatemala’s population.
Before attending a 2016 leadership camp, Ketzal’í didn’t know she had the right to attend school or access healthcare services. Through workshops, panels and team-building exercises, Ketzal’í learned leadership and advocacy skills and gained the confidence she needed to speak out.
Now Ketzal’í joins Joseline in her campaigns against child marriage. Ketzal’í works with Mayan community and political leaders to inform them of the 2017 government ban on child marriage. While marriage is illegal for those under age 18, Joseline explains that “the cultural norms have to catch up to it”, explaining why Ketzal’í’s work with local leaders is so important.
Ketzal’í is also determined to pass along her knowledge to the next generation of Indigenous girls. She leads workshops for girls ages 10 to 15, where they discuss self-esteem and reproductive health. She helps them understand they have the right to decide how and when to start their own families — and what they want for their future.
“It’s amazing to see how much she’s grown and how she keeps growing,” Joseline says of Ketzal’í’s progress since attending GOJoven’s leadership camp. She knows that young activists like Ketzal’í are the key to her country’s future: “If they don’t speak out, it makes what they’re going through, what they need, the problems that are affecting them invisible.”
This piece is available in Spanish.
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About the author
María Rendo is the communications assistant at Malala Fund. She is from Buenos Aires, Argentina and loves reading, cats and coffee.