A 14-year-old girl was jailed last week after running away to escape the wedding ceremony for which she had been sold.
The girl, who has been identified in the local press only as Anayeli “N,” was supposed to marry a neighbor in Mexico’s Guerrero state whose family had offered a sum of 200,000 pesos (about US$9,300) to buy her hand in marriage.
Anayeli’s mother had accepted the payment, and the neighboring family had hired a band, slaughtered a cow, and prepared a marriage feast to take place last Monday. All told, the would-be groom’s parents spent around 56,000 pesos ($2,600) on wedding prep.
But Anayeli, who is a member of the indigenous Mixtec people, wasn’t having any of it. Early on the morning of the “big day” she escaped from her family’s house in the village of Joya Real, in southwestern Mexico, and took shelter in the nearby home of her 15-year-old friend Alfredo “N.”
“She thought it was her older sister who was going to be married, she never thought it would be her, because she was a minor,” said Abel Barrera, director of the Guerrero-based Tlachinollan Human Rights Center, in an interview with The Daily Beast.
When Anayeli found out that it was not her sister but herself who was the intended bride, “she preferred to flee without notifying anyone, regardless of the fact that her mother had already agreed [on the price] and the expenses paid by the groom’s father,” Barrera said.
“None of that interested the girl. She simply wanted to preserve her freedom, her life, and her safety,” he said. Barrera said that, although technically illegal under Mexican law since 2019, arranged marriages for minors are still common between families living in rural regions.
Once a girl is bought, she is “treated as an object” by the family that paid for them, Barrera said. “She has to work, she has to cook the food, she has to do the cleaning, she has to go to the fields, and if she gets to work as an agricultural laborer, the money is not going to be paid to her, but to her father-in-law,” Barrera said.
Marina Reyna Aguilar, the executive director of the Guerrero Association Against Violence Toward Women, told The Daily Beast that it took great courage for Anayeli to breach social norms by running away and refusing to be “part of a tradition that forces underage girls in their community to marry by agreement of their relatives in exchange for money [or] goods or things such as beer, cows, or other animals.”
With the child bride gone missing, the groom’s family asked Joya Real’s Community Police officers to track Anayeli down. They swept the small village, found Anayeli and Alfredo in hiding, and marched them off to jail.
“In the [indigenous] community there is no one who watches over the rights of girls,” said Barrera, who is also an anthropologist specializing in local native culture. “It is the men who do justice, the older men, as there is a patriarchal culture. Women cannot go to the defense of girls because they would also be imprisoned.”
During the night they spent in jail, the two minors were told by police officers that Anayeli must submit to the marriage or pay back the $2,600 the groom’s family had already spent on the wedding and related fiestas.
The Community Police are an independent, auxiliary form of law enforcement meant to provide security in isolated regions of Mexico where there is little or no federal or state police presence. As such, officers in small towns and villages sometimes act unilaterally, since they answer to no higher authority, said Aguilar. She accused the Community Police of abusing their power by “normalizing the customs that contravene the human rights of girls and women,” despite the laws on the books forbidding underage marriage.
“The Community Police, when deciding to lock up Anayeli, [are] ignoring a legal framework which they must respect and enforce… By not complying, this turns them into law-breaking criminals,” Aguilar said.
By Tuesday morning, members of Barrera’s Tlachinollan Center, state police, and representatives of the regional district attorney’s office had all arrived in Joya Real to ensure that the teens were freed from jail. For their own safety, the two were then put into protective custody as part of Mexico’s Comprehensive Family Development system [known as DIF for its acronym in Spanish].
“Anayeli’s case is very complicated,” said Neil Arias Vitinio, a lawyer who helped secure the girl’s release. According to Vitinio, one of the complicating factors is that Anayeli speaks only the Mixtec language known as Tu’un Savi.
“The situation with her was very difficult because she is a monolingual, illiterate girl who does not even have a minimum of schooling,” Vitinio said. “When talking to her we realized that she is very self-conscious. She would hardly speak a word to us, most of the time she was silent.”
Center director Barrera said “this must all be understood in the context of extreme poverty” within marginalized indigenous communities that have been neglected by the state.
“The government has forgotten these communities. Here there is no way to study, there is no way to find a job, to develop any artistic ability,” Barrera said, and added that Anayeli’s father had recently been murdered by unknown assailants, leaving her mother desperate to fend for the family.
Arranged marriages are often seen as the only way out, as otherwise “the girls are condemned to live in these deplorable conditions,” he said.
A recent report by Spanish newspaper El Pais indicated that “thousands” of underage girls across Mexico are sold into forced marriages each year. Because the girls are then forced into hard labor and unwanted pregnancies, El Pais likened the practice to that of “slavery.” One infamous case that came to light earlier this year involved a woman who had been bought from her own father for a single bottle of mescal when she was a girl of 10.
Vitinio, who often provides legal advice to the victims of forced marriages in Guerrero along with the Tlachinollan Center, said that in many cases the underage girls “see it as something very normal and say that they know that at a certain age their parents are going to deliver them to someone.”
Largely rural, poor, and home to several diverse indigenous populations, Guerrero is one of the nation’s leading states for the sale of child brides, along with neighboring Michoacán and Oaxaca. During a stop in the mountains of Guerrero last October, not far from Anayeli’s home in Joya Real, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador drew fire for choosing to downplay the issue.
“I’m not here to look at that because it’s not the rule,” Obrador said. “There are a lot of moral, cultural and spiritual values in the [indigenous] communities. [Buying child brides] might be the exception, but it’s not the rule.”
Groups like the Network for Children’s Rights in Mexico promptly lambasted the president for “disregarding” the country’s “child trafficking problem, including the sale of young girls,” according to Mexico News Daily.
[T]he President is irresponsible in wanting to hide such a serious problem that is occurring in indigenous and rural areas, he does not recognize and wants to minimize the problem,” said women’s rights defender Aguilar. She sees Obrador’s dismissive attitude as setting a dangerous precedent of tolerance and looking the other way, which will be picked up on and emulated at the state and local level.
“I think that his opinion is misogynistic and sexist,” said Aguilar, who accused the president of “not caring what happens to this vulnerable group, because they are minors, because they are indigenous and rural, because they are poor, and because they are marginalized populations.”
Vintinio agreed, saying instead of trivializing the problem, the president should be “looking for strategies to end the practice of forced marriages.”
But there are signs that today’s generation of girls and young women might not be waiting on outside help from a disinterested president. That they might be fed up with the customs and traditions and patriarchal demands that cause them to be sold into marriage, and ready to take action themselves.
Days before Obrador made his inflammatory speech in Guerrero, headlines across the country carried the story of another girl from Guerrero who had been sold into marriage at 15. Like Anayeli, this victim was also imprisoned by the Community Police of her village after fleeing from her new husband’s home after her father-in-law tried to rape her. As was the case with the two minors in Joya Real, this girl was also placed in a protection program with the DIF.
Tlachinollan’s Barrera said that while some girls are still “forced to obey” their parents and submit to being sold, the tide might be changing—and that Anayeli’s own escape had been inspired by this new trend.
“There are beginning to be cases now in which the girls, because they don’t love the men, are making decisions not to marry them.” The word is spreading and fast enough, Barrera said, “that it had reached Anayeli’s ears.”