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Dominican Republic: Congress Modifies Law to End Child Marriage

On December 30, 2020, the Dominican Republic Senate approved changes proposed by the House of Representatives to modify the Civil Code and eliminate all legal exceptions that allow child marriage and early unions in the country. With these changes, Congress is making history and the country continues taking steps to protect children. The country’s President is now reviewing the modifications and may approve and promulgate the law as it was sent by Congress or send it back for further review.

This bill was first introduced to Congress by Congressman José Horacio Rodríguez a few weeks after IJM urged the country's Constitutional Court to declare child marriage unconstitutional. On November 18 of 2020, the House of Representatives unanimously approved the elimination and modification of articles in the Civil Code that created a legal loophole for child marriage with the permission of the parents and a special order issued by a judge. The Senate had several reviews and after 6 weeks senators voted to approve the changes. The modifications now penalize this crime with sentences between two to five years and fines between $150 and $300 USD.

“For the first time in the history of the Dominican Republic, there will be a law that protects the inviolability of sexual integrity by putting an end to child marriage, which is a form of sexual exploitation,” explained Sonia Hernandez, Associate Director of Public Justice System Strengthening for IJM. “IJM’s mission in this country is to reduce the prevalence of sexual exploitation against children, thus we applaud Congress’ decision and continue to urge the Constitutional Court to also rule with justice, so our children are protected.”

Since June, over 15 other civil society organizations and coalitions have joined IJM’s demand for change. International voices like Clayton Kershaw – starting pitcher for MLB's Los Angeles Dodgers and 2020 World Series champion – and his wife Ellen have also joined these advocacy efforts. Writing in a CNN op-ed, the Kershaws shared: “Declaring child marriage unconstitutional in the Dominican Constitutional Court is not just a technical modification to the legal code, but something that will impact real children in the Dominican Republic, who will be protected and have the freedom to dream and become who they want to be and, most importantly, will never be victims of this violence.”

“It is not enough if only Congress approves the elimination of child marriage. The Court must legislate to ensure this critical change’s sustainability over time,” explains Hernandez. If the Dominican President approves the changes to the Civil Code, there are still other laws in the country not included in the Civil Code that need to be reformed—like Law 659 on the Acts of Civil Status[1]; otherwise, criminals will continue to act with impunity.

The Constitutional Court had its first hearing to review IJM’s petition on August 27, 2020. By law, they had four months from that date to make a ruling. Although this window has passed, the country, which has the highest rates of child marriage in the Latin America and Caribbean region, continues to await a decision in this new year.

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[1] Law 659 currently provides a legal pass to not hold accountable those who sexually abuse children or adolescents if they later marry them.

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