It was a discreet wedding, with immediate family and a few other attendees. But, when a photograph of the happy couple and the details of the marriage were published, the union of the mayor of Araucária and his fifth wife became headline news in the city in the southern state of Paraná and, in a heartbeat, all over Brazil. The wedding led to controversy as it took place four days after the bride turned 16, the minimum age in Brazil to legally marry with the permission of family or a judge, and because the groom is 65 years old. Eyebrows were also raised when it became known that the day before the ceremony the alderman had given his future mother-in-law a position in City Hall, appointing her councilor for culture. Despite the half-century age difference between the couple, it was this act of nepotism that raised the most outrage.
But despite the singular elements of this particular union, it is far from an uncommon event in Brazil. Last year, Brazilian notaries registered 12,509 marriages in which at least one of the participants was aged 16 or 17. That equates to 34 teenage spouses per day, the vast majority of whom were female.
A photograph of the beaming couple as Kauane Rode Camargo places a wedding ring on Hissam Hussein Dehaini swiftly went viral. The mayor’s political party moved quickly to disown him. And, in the face of a public backlash against the appointment of his mother-in-law, he soon dismissed her, although he initially pointed to her 26 years’ experience in public service as proof of her credentials.
Almost a month after the marriage, the newlyweds remain the most talked-about subject among Araucária’s population of around 140,000. “As anywhere, there are people who are for and against it,” says E. T., who asks to be identified by his initials in order to speak freely. “But I have noticed that, because he is an excellent administrator, his supporters choose not to look at the negative side, that it [the marriage] is legal, but immoral. Many have congratulated them, and wished them good luck.”
E. T. knows Dehaini personally, but his wife only by sight. He points out that the mayor is a successful businessman with interests in hotels, gas stations and airline charters that have created many jobs locally (although E. T. also mentions Dehaini was arrested on suspicion of links to drug trafficking two decades ago, according to the website G1, part of the Globo group). In his personal life, he has been married on four other occasions and has 16 children. His current wife was a recent finalist in the Miss Araucária Teen 2022 pageant. Although it is a conservative city, Araucária also hosts a beauty contest for young girls in the style of the movie Little Miss Sunshine.
Perhaps the age difference between Dehaini and Camargo did not come as much of a shock because Brazil is well-accustomed to marriages between older men and much younger women. The political elite serve as an example: President Lula da Silva is 21 years older than his wife, Janja and his predecessor, Jair Bolsonaro, is 27 years older than his wife Michelle. The record, though, goes to Michel Temer, president from August 2016 to December 2018, who is 43 years older than his wife, Marcela, whom he met in 2002 when he was already a veteran politician, and she was a 19-year-old newly crowned miss.
The marriage between Dehaini and Camargo, while causing controversy, has served to renew the focus on child weddings in Brazil, which remains a widespread practice. But legal marriages performed before the relevant authorities are only the tip of the iceberg, says Ana Nery Lima, a gender specialist with the NGO Plan International, who says that “informal unions in Brazil are very normalized.” The United Nations estimates that 26% of Brazilian women live with a partner before they are 18, including 6% who are not even 15. “In Brazil, when people hear the expression child marriage, they usually think of child brides of nine or 10 years old in India, but they don’t think of people they know, such as that neighbor, that aunt or their grandmother, who got married at 14,” says Lima. “In the eyes of the United Nations, child marriage is a formal or informal union in which at least one of the parties is younger than 18.” In global terms, Brazil ranks fifth in the world in terms of child marriages, with 2.2 million people falling under this category. In percentage terms, however, it is not in the top 20 worldwide, a list headed by Niger where 76% of minors cohabit with a partner before the age of 18.
In Brazil, the main reasons for this phenomenon are socioeconomic and cultural. “When two minors marry, it is usually because she is pregnant and the family wants to protect the girl’s reputation. But there are also very poor families who have many children and who think: ‘Look, at least [in another family] she will have something to eat, clothes to wear,’” says Lima. “Then there is that deep-rooted, macho culture that young women are more attractive.” The specialist notes that in weddings involving minors aged 16 and 17, the age difference between the spouses is usually around 15 years, “and this means a very large inequality of power.”
Although there were still over 12,500 legal child marriages last year in Brazil, the number of such unions has fallen by 30% since 2019 when Congress reformed the Civil Code to ban marriage before the age of 16 altogether, thus closing a loophole that ultimately allowed an adult who had raped a minor to marry her instead of going to jail, while also denying her access to abortion care, which she is entitled to by law. Any sexual relationship with someone aged under 16, consensual or not, is a crime in Brazil and no child aged under 16 can marry, regardless of whether his or her family has blessed it or not. Lima says this is a step in the right direction, but Plan International is still fighting to make marriage before the age of 18 illegal.
Following the controversy over the marriage between Dehaini and Camargo, the Prosecutor’s Office opened an investigation into the Araucária mayor’s wedding and accusations of nepotism. However, as his wife is a minor, the details of the case cannot be made public.
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