ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
The world has made huge strides in ending child marriage over the past few decades. Back in the 1980s, 1 of every 3 young women were married as teenagers worldwide. Today, it's fewer than 1 in 4. But in some places, the fight against child marriage has stagnated, like Mexico. James Fredrick has this report from the southern state of Oaxaca.
JAMES FREDRICK, BYLINE: In this stuffy, two-room community center, a dozen or so young women sit around a big table swatting away pesky gnats. They're shy at first but quickly loosen up. Twenty-one-year-old Yolanda is single and feels pressured.
YOLANDA: (Speaking Spanish).
FREDRICK: She says, "people will come up to me in the street and ask how old I am and then tell me I'm getting old. They'll say right to my face, don't you think you're being left behind?" These women are a mix of tutors and students in an education program in their town of Coatecas Altas, which helps young women finish primary and secondary school online. Getting an education is a huge challenge for young women here.
CELESTINA: (Speaking Spanish).
FREDRICK: Celestina says their community makes them feel like women aren't meant to study but rather raise kids. There's this idea that you'll get married, so there's no reason to study. Dropping out of school for marriage is common by the time girls are 14 but happens as young as 11 or 12 here.
GRACIELA GARCIA: (Speaking Spanish).
FREDRICK: For Graciela Garcia, it happened at 15. She'd been friends with Jaime in school. But when things progressed, dating wasn't an option.
GARCIA: (Through interpreter) It was a big commitment because my father was very possessive and angry. I don't even know how it happened. But Jaime said to me, why don't we get together, get married? I don't know how he persuaded me, but I accepted.
FREDRICK: Unlike the rest of the world, child marriage rates have barely fallen in Mexico in the last 30 years. That means, today, nearly 1 in 5 girls marry before they turn 18. Marrying young, they're more likely to be poor, less educated and suffer domestic violence. And like most young women here, Graciela never legally married. Instead, she entered an informal civil union, a very common practice here, says Ivonne Piedras from Save the Children Mexico.
IVONNE PIEDRAS: Basically, informal unions are the same of marriage. You have the same responsibilities and the same obligation as you were married, but you don't have the official paper.
FREDRICK: Since child marriage has been banned since 2014, this informality is what drives child marriage in Mexico today. And it keeps it off official radar, says Ana Guezmes, the Mexico representative for UN Women.
ANA GUEZMES: (Speaking Spanish).
FREDRICK: She says, "few politicians in Mexico have any idea it's a problem. I'm not talking about the average citizen. I'm talking about policymakers who didn't have any idea. Even in cosmopolitan Mexico City, 13 percent of girls marry before turning 18."
Back at Graciela's home, she's making lunch for the family. Like most married young women, she had to move in with her in-laws and now handles most household chores.
GARCIA: (Through interpreter) I make tortillas. Then I come make the breakfast, then do the dishes, then sweep, then wash the clothes. I barely have a moment to sit down.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Speaking Spanish).
GARCIA: (Speaking Spanish).
FREDRICK: And life is lonely. Her husband Jaime is in the U.S. on a seasonal work visa, and she takes care of their 2-year-old son alone.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Crying, speaking Spanish).
FREDRICK: Graciela dreams of going to medical school, becoming a doctor. But at 19, she sees that dream slipping away.
GARCIA: (Through interpreter) I worry. I'm getting older, but I'm not studying anymore. It's basically impossible for me to do that now.
FREDRICK: For NPR News, I'm James Fredrick in Coatecas Altas, Mexico.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.