The unbearable lightness of lesbian (in)visibility

  • April 25th, 2020
  • Blog

Against the backdrop of this weird April, where we are all trying to live with the difficulties of the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, my partner received a letter from the health insurance company. It was a kind and completely normal administrative letter, dealing with the complexity of the Belgian public healthcare system. In that letter, I was identified as her daughter. We are a lesbian couple, and my partner is older than me. The health insurance company has all our personal data, they know, of course, our gender and age difference and they know for how long we have been living together. The only thing they did not know is the kind of relationship that unites us. They saw a stable household of two women living together with a relatively small (but still substantial) age difference and decided that the safest assumption was that we were mother and daughter.

As first, I was very amused. It is a quite common experience for lesbians, so common actually that in Brussels there is a lesbian bar called “Mothers&Daugthers”. I am also a lesbian activist and board member of EL*C, a lesbian European network group, working on recognition and visibility of lesbians among other things. Of course, this happened to me while, as part of EL*C Team, I was busy organising events and campaigns to mark International Lesbian Visibility Day. The irony of having to spend 45 minutes on the phone trying to offset the invisibility of my own relationship didn’t escape me. Being a lesbian feminist, starting my reflection and activism from my own experience of oppression, means that sometimes the world sends me a small, personal reminder on why I need to put my energy and time into the cause. It is an immense motivator and, sometimes, the source of great tiredness.

So, after the amusement, my activist instincts kicked in. I started reflecting on this small insignificant episode. I am well aware that the fact that I only had to call them and ask to rectify their mistake is really a minimal problem in this moment, given the unprecedented crisis we are facing. Even the fact that I have the time, space, and possibility to reflect on this issue and write this article is a huge privilege. However, this small insignificant problem is also an example of the fact that love and relationships between women are still unthinkable. Somehow, to the person writing that letter, it seemed more reasonable to assume that my partner gave birth to a child when she was 9 years old than to dare imagine a loving relationship between us.

Lesbian invisibility, however, it is not just a matter of administrative errors and funny calls with a very confused health insurance employee. The real, dramatic consequence of invisibility is a broad misconception and misunderstanding of lesbophobic violence, harassment, and discrimination. For example, lesbophobic violence is a phenomenon that needs to be understood in the complex interrelationships between misogyny and heteronormativity. When considering, these cases, if we frame the sexual orientation of the victims as “a matter of private life” we fail to see and, therefore, understand that the deep root of this violence does not lie only in the gender or only in the sexual orientation of the victim but in their complex entanglement. Invisibility does not protect lesbians, it erases our stories, it reinforces our oppression and the oppression of all women and LGBTI people.

When thinking more deeply, I began to question my initial amusement. LGBTQI+ people learn how to collectively construct their own defenses. One of the things that I learned in my years of activism is that building resilience as a community requires a sense of humor and that laughing in the face of our oppression is a powerful and effective way to de-potentiate its weapons. Yet, while this amusement is absolutely needed and a great tool, it should not overshadow the price of invisibility that we pay on a daily basis and the consequences of it, in terms of mental health and wellbeing. There is a clear need, when dealing with gender-based violence, harassment, and discrimination, to consider the experience of lesbians as valid in their specificity and to start focusing on it and studying it appropriately (it is often not the case).

More broadly, there is a necessity to realise that a one-size-fits-all approach on LGBTI issues or women rights might appear neutral but it can easily cause a further erasure of lesbian lives and silence our voices. This is what brings me back to the need for Lesbian Visibility Day, even in time of this unprecedented global pandemic. Lesbian Visibility Day is a way to unite our community and celebrate ourselves. But it is also a way to start a common and broader reflection on what does it means to be a group at the margin, and at the same time, at the intersection of LGBTI and women movements.

Ilaria Todde

GenPol Supports the Polish Women’s Strike

  • April 21st, 2020
  • Blog

On April 16th, activists from the Polish Women’s Strike won an important battle. Poland’s ultra-conservative ruling party had attempted to take advantage of the public health emergency to pass two bills, which would have de facto resulted in a total abortion ban and the suppression of sexuality education teaching.

Thanks to women’s mobilization, the Polish Parliament has deferred a final decision on the new legislation. However, Polish feminists are well-aware that this is only a battle of a long and bloody war. That is why we encourage you to sign the petition we circulated last week, calling on Poland to reform abortion law and to remove all barriers to abortion care. We are also extremely grateful to friends at L’inkiesta, and encourage Italian speakers to read, and share, Francesa Lepore’s poignant piece, in which GenPol and our CEO Lilia Giugni are quoted.

For further info on sexual and reproductive rights in Poland, please write to our colleague and IPPF EN Senior Advisor Irene Donadio, idonadio@ippfen.org

The Impact of Covid19 on Single Mothers

Alessandra Sciarra

Alessandra recently graduated from LSE with a master’s degree in International Social and Public Policy. She is interested in gender dynamics, economic inequality and informality and advocates for the rights of women and minority groups.

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By now, there should be no doubt that when a crisis strikes different groups are hit differently. As the COVID-19 emergency has shown us so far, a pandemic ends up magnifying existing – and often conveniently ignored – inequalities.

The situation faced by single mothers exemplifies the effects of the pandemic on women. In the UK alone, there are about two million single parents, 90% of which are women. Around 70% of all single parents in the country are currently in work and, out of them, three out of ten live in poverty. School closures and self-isolation have meant that single mothers have all of a sudden found themselves alone with children at home. Self-isolation makes it extremely difficult to count on the help of family members and many women have reported the stress of being locked inside all the time looking after children on their own, while, in some cases, also caring for the elderly in the family. At the same time, single mothers tend to work in more precarious, low paid jobs, which do not offer the option of remote working. Thus, this situation forces them to decide whether going to work, exposing themselves to the risk of infection and having no one to look after their children, or staying home, eventually losing their job

The mental stress that comes from this situation is extremely high and is worsened by the implications of children staying at home. These include an increase in food costs as single mothers now have to deal with the additional and unexpected economic burden of substituting school lunches with home-made meals. For a single mother of two that means providing ten extra meals per week. From a social policy standpoint, the situation in which single mothers currently are allows us to draw a few lessons. Firstly, the austerity measures implemented throughout Europe in the past years, which have led to cuts in budgets for welfare programmes targeted to categories deemed as “undeserving”, clearly have a responsibility in the poor coverage and low support that many women are now receiving. Secondly, the caretaking systems that many countries have in place at the moment are just not good enough. The lack of available and affordable care services places too much of a burden on women, who are not able to break out from the cycle of less secure and lower paid part-time job positions. Many single parents do indeed prefer to work more flexible but lower paid and lower quality jobs, as it allows them to perform the level of care-taking they actually need. 

The vulnerability of this of women during the pandemic calls for emergency measures to be implemented as quickly as possible. Access to financial support schemes should be easy and quick and extra money should be put into the system to allow everyone’s needs to be met. A gender-neutral policy-making is not going to be effective as it is not going to cover the needs of those groups who are systematically disadvantaged. While it is pivotal to act intelligently during the crisis, it seems clear that these issues are rooted in deeper gender-based disparities and more has to be done during normal times in order to strengthen women’s position in society. 

COVID-19 is a disaster for women worldwide, threatening to turn the clock on gender equality. But it could also offer a window of opportunity for change and evidence-driven policy advocacy. In order to shape improved and gender-sensitive future policies, it is now important to record how differently this pandemic is affecting women and men. As vulnerable single women are currently paying much of the cost of poor and narrow-sighted policy making, this situation offers us a chance to rebuild a system that was insufficient in the first place. 

 

What a Virologist Thinks You Should Know About CoVid-19: GenPol in Conversation with Nerea Irigoyen

As part of our ongoing Covid-19 series, this week GenPol were lucky enough to interview  Dr Nerea Irigoyen, a virologist from the University of Cambridge.  In 2010, Nerea was appointed as a Sir Henry Wellcome Postdoctoral Fellow (Wellcome Trust), working under the supervision of Prof Ian Brierley, recording mechanisms in retrovirus and coronavirus. Since September 2018, she has been working as a Research Group Leader focusing on Zika Virus translation and its relationship with pathogenicity and disease.

We sat down to gauge her thoughts about the Covid-19 pandemic, and what she thinks you should know about it.

1) What’s life in your lab/department like these days? How are you holding up?

On Friday 20th March, all the labs in our Department were shut down. The University of Cambridge activated the red alert on Wednesday and gave us 48 hours to finish all the essential experiments. Since then, the whole lab has been working remotely!

2) What are you and your colleagues working on exactly?

In the lab we are working on the Zika virus. The Zika virus made the headlines in 2016 when it was linked to the sudden spike in babies born with significantly smaller heads, (what is also known as microcephaly) in Latin America. The virus, transmitted by mosquitoes and isolated in Africa in 1947, was never considered remarkable because previous cases had been asymptomatic. Therefore, our main interest in the lab is to know what sets the new American Zika virus apart from the African Zika virus and to know whether there are differences in how they replicate, produce their viral proteins and ultimately how they can cause disease.


3) At GenPol we have been looking at the gendered and intersectional implications of the pandemic. What are your thoughts on this?

The last two pandemics (Zika virus in 2016 and the current SARS-CoV-2) have had a huge effect on women. During the outbreak in Latin America, the Zika virus caused profound social impacts, particularly on women and girls. Despite recommendations from health authorities in endemic countries to postpone pregnancies for up to two years, it was made difficult for young women to avoid pregnancy due to a lack of clear reproductive health information by the Brazilian public health system. It was also difficult to access long-term contraceptives. In addition, abortion is criminalized in many Latin American countries and can be punishable with a 20-30 year prison sentence.

Women in Brazil also sought abortion through clandestine means, often involving dangerous methods such as caustic acid. In 2015, half a million women in Brazil underwent abortions, and tragically unsafe abortion was the fourth leading cause of maternal mortality. Furthermore, the lives of mothers with children diagnosed with Congenital Zika Syndrome have been profoundly impacted, with many women unable to maintain a job, whilst having to pay for medication and travel costs to access consultations in urban areas.

Associations that help victims of domestic violence have raised the alarm after Europe has become the epicentre of the coronavirus pandemic, warning that the stress caused by social isolation is exacerbating tensions and increasing the risk of domestic and sexual violence against women and children. In addition, fears for job security and financial difficulties are also increasing the likelihood of conflicts in homes with no previous history of domestic abuse. In this sense, the UK Home Secretary Priti Patel has indicated that refuges will remain open, and the police will provide support to all individuals who are being physically or emotionally abused. In addition, it is important to be aware that millions of children are spending more time online and that they may be even more vulnerable to online predators.

4) Why is SARS-CoV-2 so virulent? What makes it different from other viruses you have been studying?

This novel coronavirus, the SARS-CoV-2 is not so virulent compared to the ‘cousin’ virus SARS-CoV but more easily transmissible. The SARS-CoV outbreak in 2003 in China had a fatality rate of 10% but did not have the capacity to spread as easily as this.

SARS-CoV-2 has managed to spread across the globe in just a few weeks (it is important to notice that the first pneumonia cases in China were reported by late December) but although the fatality rate will be 1-2%, the great number of cases is hugely increasing the number of deaths.

The real dangers of this virus are that it is completely new for humans and not very well adapted yet. This is why it is so pathogenic. In addition, we do not have any immune memory to combat it yet. Also, viruses that are transmitted through respiratory droplets, produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes, are easily transmitted compared to other viruses such as mosquito-borne like Zika virus.

6) What is the likelihood of more different strains developing?

Unlike flu viruses, coronaviruses can proofread their genomes as they copy them, correcting mistakes along the way. This feature reduces their mutation rate and is probably the one bit of good news about coronaviruses. This makes coronaviruses less of a moving target for our immune system and our immunity will likely last for longer.

7) Is another recurrence (or second wave) of a a pandemic likely in your opinion?

Quite likely. In the near future there are two possible scenarios for the recurrence of this epidemic unless a vaccine is available. The first one will be during the release of the lockdown and this is why is extremely necessary to test all the population in order to prevent asymptomatic carriers to infect new people. The second scenario will take place next autumn, as good weather might lower the virus transmission in the Northern hemisphere but there is a high chance that it will come back later in the year. In the worst case scenario, SARS-CoV-2 will arrive at the same time as flu virus and this will cause health systems to collapse extremely quick. This is why we should start to prepare now for a potential second wave.

Currently there are a lot of research groups working on developing a vaccine against this novel coronavirus. We need to take into account that vaccines do normally take years until they can be developed. In this case, as we have done a lot of previous work with related coronavirus such as SARS and MERS, we will probably reduce this time but even though we will not probably have a safe and effective vaccine for the next 12-18 months.

8) What are the personal dangers faced by scientists who work with the virus? How do you protect yourselves?

Laboratory workers handling this virus should wear personal protective equipment (PPE) which includes disposable gloves, laboratory coat/gown, respirator (e.g. N-95), and eye protection. Furthermore, any procedure with the potential to generate fine-particulate aerosols (e.g. vortexing or sonication of specimens in an open tube) should be performed in a Class II Biological Safety Cabinet. After specimens are processed, work surfaces and equipment should be decontaminated and all disposable waste should be autoclaved.

9) Are there many women scientists in your lab? How are they coping with the extra load of work and work/life balance in these difficult times?

There are a big number of female scientists in the Division of Virology especially at a graduate and postdoctoral level, for most of us this is going to be the first time working from home, and for an uncertain amount of time. The idea of continuing with our full-time jobs while simultaneously homeschooling children, attending to elderly or sick relatives is extremely challenging. I think we need to acknowledge this new situation and that it will take time to adapt, probably more than expected. Probably everything will start to improve once as we settle into our new routines (i.e. designate a workspace or defined working hours). For the time being, we need to keep as positive as possible, this will help at getting the work done and at maintaining our mental wellbeing.

10.) What can we in our daily life do to help protect the most vulnerable?

The best strategy to help the most vulnerable during the current epidemic is to stay at home and practice social distancing. So far, this is the only way to avoid the spread of the virus and to flatten the epidemic curve.

Another way of helping vulnerable people is volunteering. That includes helping with shopping, delivering medicines from pharmacies, driving patients to appointments, bringing them home from hospital, and making regular phone calls to check on people isolating at home. Remember always to carry out this work in a sensible and vigilant way, always maintaining the physical distancing rules.

 

Coronavirus and Social Justice: GenPol teams up with Fondazione Feltrinelli

As part of our CoVid19 series, our own Lilia Giugni was commissioned to write an op-ed for The Feltrinelli Foundation (Fondazione Feltrinelli).

Lilia’s article compares the social justice implications of the pandemic and related public health measures in the UK and her native Italy. It argues that the virus is brutally revealing the dramatic patterns of inequalities that underpin our ways of life, with the most vulnerable ones paying -as always- the heaviest price.

Italian speakers can read the article here

GenPol in the time of Coronavirus

This week the World Health Organisation has declared the current outbreak of the new Coronavirus a Pandemic, meaning that the virus is spreading across different countries, affecting large numbers of people at a global level.

In spite of the WHO’s declaration and the numbers which are clearly pointing towards a global phenomenon, something which many are already recognizing as a historical event. We’re observing governments still approaching the problem with different levels of concern and seriousness, and adopting radically different sets of measures to address the outbreak (also depending on the current severity of the epidemic on their national territory at a certain moment).

GenPol is a transnational project, conceived to promote gender equality and influence policies and stakeholders, across Europe and beyond, to include gender and social justice concerns in their behaviour.

At this time, it is imperative that we all act as a community, work at all levels to protect not only ourselves and our loved ones, but especially those who are most vulnerable in our societies. 

Women (and womxn) stand to be some of the most affected by the coronavirus outbreak, as well as by the unprecedented safety measures many governments are adopting.  This includes women with unstable jobs (or no job at all), homeless women, victims and survivors of domestic violence, and all those who might not have a safe home where to self-quarantine. It includes single mothers, single older women, those who are more vulnerable to isolation and discrimination (women of colour, with a migrant background, or belonging to sexual and gender minorities), detained women, health workers and women operating in a (still) overwhelming gendered care sector. Mental health will also be a central topic in the weeks and months to come, as society comes to terms with the outbreak.

From today, and in spite of the limitations on our usual activities, GenPol is planning to continue working and focusing on analysing, researching, producing content and raising awareness on all these topics. We’ll also try to collect and highlight all available relevant resources across as many European countries as we can, which can be used by women experiencing difficult or distressing situations in these troubled times.

Take care of yourself and people close to you, keep connected and continue to fight the good fight.

 

The GenPol Team

 

GenPol’s contributions to the 2020-2024 EU Gender Strategy

Tackling gender-based violence, it has been anticipated, will be a key priority of the 2020-2024 EU Gender Equality Strategy.

At GenPol we think it is vital that abuse against women is understood and addressed comprehensively. This means, first of all, taking into account intersections between forms of violence based on gender and other oppressive dynamics motivated by race, class, religion, and various forms of economic and social vulnerability. It is also important to pay attention to new and pernicious manifestations of violence.

This is why we welcome the efforts that European institutions have been recently devoting to tackling violent acts that result not only in physical and sexual harm, but in psychological and economic suffering to women. We also applaud any attempt to raise awareness around gender-based discrimination and harassment at all levels.

In order for the new Strategy to be success, it is crucial that digital gender-based violence is openly recognised as one the latest manifestation of patriarchal abuse. It must become a key area of work within the forthcoming EU Gender Equality Strategy.

Even though online vitriol can be directed against people of all genders, existing research clearly indicates that the attacks that women (especially BAME, LGBTQAI+ and disabled ones) face on the Internet are disproportionately more intense, and extremely sexualised. We also know that online and offline violence have a remarkably similar impact on the target, and that they constantly intersect, as digital technologies are increasingly used by both organised misogynistic groups, as well as by perpetrators of domestic violence.

Building on these considerations (which we outline extensively in our policy paper), we suggest that interventions in this area can be usefully incorporated in the forthcoming EU Gender Equality Strategy in at least four ways.

  1. The new Gender Equality Strategy should integrate inter-State data and information sharing, legal and technical skill exchange, and EU-level training of national legal personnel on digital violence. In order to do this, legislative intervention that falls outside the legislative remit of the EU may be needed to address legal loopholes (in many European states this is the case, for example, with image-based abuse). However, several existing provisions at national, international and EU-levels can be effectively used to respond to digital attacks. In other words, it is crucial that legal personnel and other stakeholders across the continent are trained to recognise the gendered nature of digital abuse, and to apply existing legislation accordingly.
  1. EU institutions can effectively build on existing EU-level legislation (for example, the Equal Treatment Directive, the Code of Best Practices for Women in ICT, GDPR) to push tech companies to adopt more effective reporting mechanisms, as well as take down and moderation procedures. There is also a need for more transparent data policies and internal gender equality commitments. This last point is particularly important, as gender inequalities in tech companies can translate into a dismissive attitude towards digital harm. Online abuse concerns should thus be incorporated not only in the section of the Gender Equality Strategy that addresses violence against women, but also in those that consider how to advance women’s rights in the context of digital innovation.
  2. The new Strategy should explicitly cite digital violence survivors (and the groups that work with them) as beneficiaries of specific forms of support. Not only do women’s rights organisations tend to be painfully underfunded, but tackling online harm also adds another layer of difficulty. Domestic and sexual violence charities (together with employers) need specialised training and resources to best withstand digital attacks. In particular, there is evidence that female politicians, journalists and human rights advocates are amongst the principal targets of online assaults. Whilst this leads some to quit their job, it also dissuades younger women from engaging in public life. Awareness raising, training and capacity building initiatives are thus urgently needed for organisations that employ, or work with, professionals in public facing roles. Crucially, this should be a part of EU-sponsored measures to address gender-based violence, as well as of those sections of the new Strategy dealing with gender equality at work and in decision-making.
  1. Educational interventions, and especially comprehensive sexuality education designed to eradicate the stereotypes and social norms that inform violence are the single most effective, long-term strategy to challenge online violence – and indeed any type of abuse. Coordination of best practices and capacity building in this area are key.

Whilst the 2020-2024 EU Gender Strategy could mark a significant stride towards the eventual eradication of gender-based violence, this intervention must incorporate multi-level solutions targeting digital attacks and online abuse. An awareness of the pernicious nature of digital violence- and its tangible real-world impacts- will help to inform a truly transformational strategy for the new decade.

 

The GenPol Team

‘Nobody imagines what it’s like to be an LGBT asylum seeker’: GenPol in Conversation with Carmn Ferrara

  • February 7th, 2020
  • Blog

GenPol is back in conversation for the new decade, and this week we were lucky enough to interview Crmn Ferrara. Carmn is an LGBTQI+ activist, whom GenPol were lucky enough to work with in Southern Italy in the latter part of 2019. They have just published a book on the intersecting forms of oppression faced by LGBTQI migrants in Italy (which our CEO, Lilia Giugni, presented at a local book launch late last year).

Carmn’s book is available to purchase on Amazon, here.

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Can you tell our readers a little about your background and what lead to you publish your book?

I have been a human and civil rights activist since I was 17, now I’m 25, I wrote my bachelor‘s dissertation on LGBT+ asylum seekers while I was following a course on Mediterranean Geopolitics.

My identity as an activist is closely linked to my aptitude for research. What led me to publish my book was the need to inform Italians on a topic they know little about. This will has grown more and more by working with immigrants. Research on the topic has increased in recent years, but when I started looking for bibliography in 2016, very little had been published in Italy. The methodological approach I apply in my book is a secondary data analysis, based on ILGA World indicators. Although I haven’t spent any time on rescue boats, I volunteer alongside migrants.

 What particular challenges do you think LGBT+ migrants face coming in to Italy, and are there any common obstacles they face upon arrival?

To understand the difficulties facing LGBT+ migrants when they arrive in Europe, it is essential to know what it means to be LGBT+ in their country of origin. The request for international protection is presented at the border police office when they arrive or at the competent police headquarters based on the applicant’s home. In my research I am not talking about migrants, but about asylum seekers who arrive in Italy through the Mediterranean sea (its an important distinction to make).

Often in their home countries, being homosexual is punished in some way: fines, imprisonment or even the death penalty. Sometimes, even if there is no law that actively criminalises homosexual behaviours, it is still customary to persecute LGBT+ people. One common challenge is the difficulty in declaring sexual orientation and / or their gender identity (particularly if in their cultures it is generally not practical to speak openly about sexuality). People do not realise that you need to have an entire conversation with the body responsible for the recognition of refugee status (territorial commissions first followed by court in the event of a negative response). Applicants are forced to answer questions on details of their intimate and private and life

Films like Fuocammare and the work of the Open Arms Association have drawn public  and media attention to migration in to Italy , but these are only snapshots of a much more complex pattern. What is one thing you wish members of the public knew more about LBTQI migration , or one preconception you could dispel?

The work of Open Arms, of the Sea Watch and documentaries as Fuocammare shed light on the dramatic situation of people who challenge the desert and the sea to reach our country. The geographical position of Italy, together with Malta, has seen many deaths a few miles from our coasts . Yet, the mass media broadcast these images of migrants without showing them as individuals, but as clusters. Obviously each one of them has a story. The reality is that if you are an immigrant that is your only identity. Nobody thinks that you can have passions or that you can have a sexual orientation that is anything other than straight. Nobody thinks that you might not be a cisgender, or that you don’t want to sell lighters at the traffic lights. But what, if, for example you have ambitions, desires and dreams that go beyond that? Whilst I do not want to romanticise or sentimentalise the narrative, we have to challenge the lazy one that is being thrown around by the Italian media that “all migrants pretend to be gay to get international protection”. Nobody imagines what it’s like to be an LGBT asylum seeker.

By that, I mean they do not understand the layers of discrimination that a person has to live when he/she/them is LGBT in an immigrant community. When you arrive in a country that it should be safe and face stereotypes and bureaucracy- when find yourself in a community where the majority don’t speak your language and maybe have a very different way of expressing their sexuality and/or gender identity-it can be incredibly challenging.  As activists and researchers we have a responsibility to listen to these stories is to protect the integrity of the people we work with, and give scientific dignity to these invisible issues.

Can you recommended any organisations our readers with Italian connections can donate to/ support?

In Italy there are some LGBT organisations work with LGBTIQ asylum seekers. Arcigay is one of them and Migra-Antinoo is the desk I coordinated. I am in a group of linguistic and cultural mediators, lawyers, psychologist to support LGBTIQ asylum seekers during the claiming of asylum.

Minimum Marriageable Age Laws and Teenage Pregnancy: A Case Study on Mexico

The issue of child marriage in Mexico is particularly grave. Across the country, about one in four girls are married before the age of 18. On a global scale, Mexico ranks seventh in the absolute number of child brides. Consequently, in the hope of eliminating child marriage, Mexico introduced the General Law on the Rights of Children and Adolescents (‘Ley General de los Derechos de Niñas, Niños y Adolescentes’) in 2014, in line with target 5.3 of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). In particular, the law raised the minimum marriageable age to 18 without exceptions and was implemented in the majority of Mexican states by 2017.

One of the main reasons why child marriage is detrimental to adolescent girls’ welfare, among other factors, is because it has been linked to teenage pregnancy. Whereas most OECD countries have experienced increases in the mean childbearing age, Mexico has seen an opposite trend where the average age of childbirth has decreased by about 3.6 years since 1970.

In the second chapter of my PhD dissertation, I examine the effectiveness of Mexico’s minimum marriageable age laws in mitigating child marriage rates and teenage birth rates between 2014 and 2017. I do so specifically by exploiting the differential timing in the law implementation across Mexican states. This approach allows me to estimate the difference in child marriage and teenage birth rates between states that had enacted the law and those that had not. The results from my analysis show that while child marriage rates decreased, teenage birth rates increased. Given the positive relationship between child marriage and teenage pregnancy, this finding is surprising as one would expect the latter to decrease along with the former. Upon further investigation, I find that the rise in total teenage birth rates partially stemmed from the increase in teenage birth rates among girls in consensual unions (girls who were cohabitating with their partners without being formally married). Additional results show that the law was effective in increasing the probability of girls’ school attendance.

There are three possible channels that could have led to the unexpected increase in teenage birth rates among girls in consensual unions. Firstly, the prohibition of marriage could have encouraged girls to enter informal consensual unions (before pregnancy), which would have effectively re-allocated births from married girls to girls in consensual unions. Secondly, it could be that teenage girls chose to get pregnant to make up for the loss of marriage as a commitment device, which in turn could have resulted in a consensual union thereafter. Thirdly, girls who were pregnant during the time of the legal reforms could have also been coerced into entering a consensual union post-pregnancy as marriage was no longer an option.

In order to differentiate between the three potential mechanisms at play, I draw from a Child Labor Module (MTI) survey which contains nationally representative information on the marital statuses of girls below 18. Specifically, I analyze if the law had an effect on the probability of a girl being in a consensual union. The results suggest that the law decreased the probability of a girl being in a consensual union, indicating that the first channel is unlikely. This is because if the law had pushed girls into consensual unions, one should see an increase in the probability of a girl being in one, which is not what is observed. More importantly, this implies that the latter two channels are possibly responsible for the rise in teenage birth rates.

Altogether, the findings imply that while minimum marriageable age laws are useful in curbing child marriage practices and increasing girls’ school attendance, they could have unintended consequences for adolescent fertility. If indeed the latter two channels are true, where girls are encouraged to have children earlier or are forced to enter consensual unions post pregnancy, girls would be left even less protected than before in cases related to domestic violence for example. Over the last decade, states across Mexico began to allow domestic violence as grounds for divorce and introduced unilateral and no-fault divorce where proof for cause and mutual agreement was no longer required. Therefore, because minimum marriageable age laws obstruct girls’ access to such marriage-related rights that could enhance their well-being, they may be subject to even greater susceptibility in certain situations.

Lastly, my results also confirm that the rise in teenage birth rates was driven by girls from lower socio-economic classes (those who are lowly educated, in domestic work, have 1 or more existing children, or are unemployed). The intuition behind this finding is that poorer girls are more likely to choose the pregnancy path to gain commitment and financial support from their partners, given their low income earning potential. Altogether, this further suggests that marriage age law reforms may disproportionately affect vulnerable and economically disadvantaged girls by perpetuating the cycle of poverty and leaving them less protected from domestic violence, among other things.

It should be noted that the aim of this study is not to disregard the benefits of minimum marriageable age laws in enhancing girls’ welfare. My results show that Mexico’s marriage age law reforms were effective in mitigating child marriage rates, increasing the probability of girls attending school and also decreasing the likelihood of girls entering both formal and informal unions at a young age. Altogether, these outcomes have long-run positive effects on girls’ human capital accumulation, health and nutrition, among other factors.

Audrey Au Yong Lyn
 Ludwig-Maximilian University of Munich (Economics)

 

New Policy Paper Coming Soon!

We are thrilled to announce a forthcoming policy-paper, produced in conjunction with the Foundation of European Progressive Studies.

The paper, entitled ‘Tackling Online Misogyny:  Multi-level, Intersectional Solutions to Digital Gender-Based Violence’ will be launched in Brussels this November (date and location TBC). The paper will be available to access on our website shortly after for those of you who cannot make the event.

….watch this space!

 

Yours in solidarity,

The GenPol Team

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