MEXICO CITY: Federal lawmakers want to raise the minimum age for marriage to 18 for both sexes to keep children from dropping out of school, according to a bill introduced in Mexico’s Senate on Thursday.

The current minimum age of 14 for women and 16 for men encourages children “to leave school and go to work, causing a situation that creates a vicious circle of poverty,” five senators who sponsored the bill said in its text.

Nearly 400,000 Mexican children between 12 and 17 are married or living with romantic partners, said Sen. Guillermo Tamborrel, a member of the ruling National Action Party who wrote the bill.

Most of those marriages take place after an underage woman becomes pregnant, Tamborrel said, because men in many parts of Mexico can avoid jail time for statutory rape by marrying the girl.

In indigenous communities, parents also still sometimes arrange marriages for their young daughters for economic and cultural reasons, Tamborrel said.

“When a marriage is forced, the possibility of developing as a person is limited or eliminated for many,” he said. “They are in a very vulnerable position.”

If approved, the bill, which proposes unspecified pregnancy-prevention programs for children and teenagers, would serve only as a guideline, as states will still be left to legislate their own marriage rules.

The United Nations Children’s Fund has urged governments to set 18 as the legal marriage age.

UNICEF has found that even parents who understand the negative impact of very young marriages find it hard to resist economic and societal pressures.

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