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FOCUS June 2022 Volume 108

Enforcing the Law Against Child Marriage

Rufa Cagoco-Guiam

A law criminalizing the practice of child, early, and forced marriage took effect in the Philippines in February 2022. This law implements the state policy of abolishing "all traditional and cultural practices and structures that perpetuate discrimination, abuse, and exploitation of children such as the practice of child marriage"

The law entitled "An Act Prohibiting the Practice of Child Marriage and Imposing Penalties Thereof" (Republic Act No. 11596) was signed on 10 December 2021. It imposes stiff penalties on those who officiate or even cause early or child marriage, like parents and older relatives of both girls and boys.

The law was praised by some sectors in society but opposed by a group of Muslim leaders who were members of the parliament in the Bangsamoro Transition Authority (BTA) in the Muslim region in Mindanao. The opposition to the law was based on the view that child marriage was part of Bangsamoro "tradition" or "culture" and that "it is hard to change."1

The Bangsamoro Transition Authority (BTA), the interim governing body of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (BARMM), issued a resolution appealing to President Rodrigo Duterte to stop the implementation of the law. In supporting their resolution at the BTA, the group of members of parliament claimed that the "...Bangsamoro community does not support this law," as stated by Minister Romeo Sema of the region's Ministry of Labor and Employment.2

The enforcement of the law however has not been suspended.

Enforcing the Law

Save the Children?South Central Mindanao Office (SCMO) commissioned a research to get evidence-based information for designing interventions addressing the concerns and issues related to the practice of early or child marriage among indigenous peoples. The research adopted a human rights perspective that recognizes an individual's right to marriage and to found a family as based on the requirement of the "free and full consent of the intending parties."3 In this sense, the "free and full" consent of the parties who are below 18 years of age can be dubious as they are still considered immature, and usually under the influence of the decisions made by their parents or older relatives.

The research found out that many of the T'boli and Blaan women who contracted early marriage (at ages ten, twelve, fifteen and sixteen) were not able to finish their basic education (primary and secondary levels). When they went back to school after being married, they were ridiculed and bullied by their classmates. They also had to deal with various socio-psychological factors that are part and parcel of married life, like having to deal with interfering in-laws, earning a living for their family, and nurturing children, when they themselves were still children. One case stood out as among the most worrisome situation a child bride can get herself into. One team documented the case of a young woman at sixteen, who already had three children?her parents arranged for her to marry the local village chief after she reached puberty. In her case, this happened when she was twelve, so after her first menstruation, she was sent off to the household of the village chieftain, who at that time already had twelve wives. As part of her tragic story, her two elder siblings had become child brides of the chieftain earlier. This was because her parents had to follow the "tradition" of early marriage of their indigenous community. The reckoning of the relationships of the children of each of these three siblings by the same husband can be a huge challenge for any sociologist to handle, making the drawing of the children's family tree very much a confusing exercise: the children of the three siblings are also siblings themselves (because they were fathered by a common husband) but they are also first-degree cousins since they are children of three siblings.

Another study by the Save the Children (STC) came up with several insights based on the prevalence of early marriage among both the T'boli of South Cotabato and the Blaan of Sarangani province. Some of the interviewed traditional leaders in that study stressed that it is hard to beat "tradition," yet they also realized that many in their respective communities became out-of-school youth after they got married. One of its research team's recommendations was for STC to conduct a series of consultations among the indigenous peoples' communities within their area of work, in both South Cotabato and Sarangani, to convince the traditional leaderships among the T'boli and Blaan to consider regulating the practice of early marriage in their communities. This was carried out, and toward the end of the series of consultations, traditional leaders themselves agreed on a covenant to ensure that young people, especially girls, would not be pushed to marry early just to keep the tradition.

In Marawi City, after the five-month siege in 2017, a substantial number of child and forced marriages among girls was reported in evacuation sites. Thirty-one percent of the people in these sites responded to a survey conducted by Plan International that child and forced marriage, especially among young girls, is considered the most common form of sexual violence. While early or child marriage is "acceptable" among Meranaws as it is part of their "tradition," there is also a growing number of women among them who are advocating the end of this practice. The survey also revealed that child marriage has become a coping mechanism for many families in the temporary or transitory shelter areas due to "economic instability, fear of violence, and a felt need to maintain 'family honor.'" The latter is the consequence of the shame brought about by an act of sexual violence against young girls in the evacuation sites. It is always the violated girls who bear the brunt of being shamed and pilloried by society. When she gets pregnant, she will be forced to marry the older person who sexually abused her to "preserve family honor."

The Panginam (Hope) project in Molundo, a town situated twenty kilometers south of Marawi City, is strongly advocating that girls and boys are given opportunities to study and to enjoy their childhood. In 2019, the United Nations Population Fund, together with the United Nations Development Programme and the International Labour Organization provided both material and capacity-building support to a group of young women who wanted to see the practice of child and forced marriage eliminated in their communities. Sam Guro, a youth development officer in Molundo, initiated this program, together with three friends. Sam herself revealed that her parents were married when they were children, but are now realizing that education can be a weapon to fight against poverty, and both young women and men should be given adequate opportunities to get quality education, learn skills for livelihood, instead of stopping school just because they are already married in order to work to support their families. Children need to enjoy being children, being able to play and engage in rough and tumble kinds of games while in their primary and secondary school studies. Sam is proud that she and her friends are giving young girls and boys hope for the future, one that is no longer practicing child marriage.

The results of these research projects support the feasibility of enforcing in Mindanao the law that prohibits child marriage.

Like all other aspects of culture, tradition is learned; therefore, it can also be unlearned. Moreover, several traditions among Magindanawan have already been decreed by Muslim Councils of Elders as "un-Islamic"--for example, the belief in fortune-telling, sorcery, traditional forms of healing invoking spirits like the pag ipat, celebrating birthdays, among others. These are strongly discouraged among Muslims. But practicing these cultural traditions does not infringe on anybody's human rights, unlike the practice of child marriage.


Rufa Cagoco‐Guiam, after retiring as a Full Professor at the Sociology Department, College of Social Sciences and Humanities, Mindanao State University - General Santos City in 2016, continues to research, write and give presentations on peace issues in Mindanao, as well as participate in special government projects on addressing problems affecting Muslims in Mindanao.

For further information, please contact: Rufa Cagoco-Guiam, e-mail: rcguiam@gmail.com.

Endnotes
1 See Jeoffrey Maitem, "Muslim leaders ask Duterte to defer law criminalizing child marriage,"
Philippine Daily Inquirer, 10 January 2022, https://newsinfo.inquirer.net/1538228/muslim-leaders-ask-duterte-to-defer-law-criminalizing-child-marriage.
2 Maitem, ibid.
3 See Article 16, Sections 1 and 2 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and Article 16.2 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW).