SEC through forced marriage and/or common law relationships

Sexual exploitation of children through forced marriage and/or common law relationships

The Sexual Exploitation of Children (SEC) is a fundamental infringement of the rights of this population sector, which has worldwide impact and takes on various modalities or forms of expression in the territories. All of these have one element in common: the presence of at least one adult who uses a child or adolescent for sexual purposes, providing him or her, or a third party or parties, with remuneration or the promise of it. The practice has become naturalized in the world’s social and cultural constructs. But there is a particular form of SEC that is strongly rooted in cultural and relational practices and models, which involves forced marriages and/or common law relationships. 

These are “formal or de facto relationships established between children or adolescents and adults who are significantly older, which include sexual activities and hide a financial or other type of exchange/retribution, involving both themselves and their family” (IIN, 2021, p. 5). In these situations, bonds are established that are based on a clear imbalance of power (economic, gratification, knowledge, and other types), which nullifies any possibility of involving consent and equal negotiation (IIN, 2021). 

The exchange or retribution that occurs is not always explicit and tangible, which contributes to making exploitation invisible and socially legitimizing these relationships. Most of these bonds between adults and teenagers (mainly female) involve a symbolic remuneration; based on the possibility of a better future, of feeling recognized by someone, or of having a place to live in as an alternative to their original place of residence. In some regions or communities, the social and collective imaginary still perceives that a union with an adult is a guarantee of protection and a safeguard for young spouses or partners, as well as for their families, providing them with a better future. On occasion, it is even the “expected” path, repeating behavioural patterns historically established in family models.

The fact that national legislation exists that allows formal unions/marriages between adolescents and adults also contributes to the invisibility of this violent and violating practice, and to the social naturalization of such bonds.

It is estimated that 23 per cent of girls in Latin America and the Caribbean are married or in a common law union before the age of 18, which represents a ratio of one in four young women in this type of relationship. One in five child brides have married, formally or otherwise, a man at least ten years older; and eight in ten are mothers before they reach the age of majority (UNICEF, 2019).

The bonds established through forced/child marriages have consequences for and impacts on the development of adolescents as individuals. They do not only cause physical, mental or sexual harm and/or suffering, with consequences for their personal development, but also have a negative impact on their ability to fully exercise their rights (CEDAW/C/GC/31/CRC/C/GC/18, 2014, paragraph 20). Teenage victims of these relationships suffer abuse and violence due to the characteristics of the bond itself and its power imbalances, in addition to the fact that they abandon their education centres and areas of protection very early, often experience forced adolescent motherhood and suffer the restriction of their possibilities for future development. 

In its Thematic Note N° 1/23,  the Inter-American Programme for the Prevention and Eradication of Sexual Exploitation, Smuggling of and Trafficking in Children reflects about the issue of sexual exploitation of children through forced marriage and/or common low relationships.