The Manila Times
NO HOLDS BARRED
Rep. Edcel C. Lagman’s
Weekly Thursday Column
PRESIDENT Rodrigo Duterte is expected to sign into law the enrolled bill on the reconciled version of House Bill No. 9943 and Senate Bill No. 1373, entitled “An Act Prohibiting the Practice of Child Marriage and Imposing Penalties for Violations Thereof”.
This optimism on the President’s approval is based on his steadfast advocacy for the full implementation of the Reproductive Health Act, which includes the prohibition of child marriage and the prevention of adolescent pregnancy.
On Jan. 9, 2017, Duterte issued Executive Order No. 12 on “Attaining and Sustaining ‘Zero Unmet Need for Modern Family Planning’ Through the Implementation of the Responsible Parenthood and Reproductive Health Act”. On June 25, 2021, he also issued Executive Order No. 141 on “Adopting as a National Priority the Implementation of Measures to Address the Root Causes of the Rising Number of Teenage Pregnancies, and Mobilizing Government Agencies for the Purpose”. The prohibition of child marriage by the Congress antedates and parallels the objectives of the said Executive Orders.
When a young girl becomes a bride, its consequences will traverse her entire lifetime and its deleterious effects, including poverty, lack of educational and employment opportunities, and ill-health, will be passed on to her children and even to her grandchildren.
Ultimately, the heartbreaking phenomenon of young girls becoming brides is a tragedy that burdens an entire nation. Child marriage is clearly an element of intergenerational poverty and adversely affects national productivity.
Under the proposed law, child marriage refers to any marriage where one or both parties are children under 18 years of age, or 18 years of age or over but who is unable to fully take care and protect oneself from abuse, neglect, cruelty, exploitation or discrimination because of a physical or mental disability or condition. It is solemnized in a civil or church ritual or in any recognized traditional, cultural or customary manner. It extends to an informal union or cohabitation outside of wedlock between an adult and a child, or between children.
The following are culpable of the offense of “facilitation of child marriage”: 1) any person who causes, fixes, facilitates, or arranges a child marriage, and 2) any person who produces, prints, issues, and/or distributes fraudulent or tampered documents such as birth certificates, affidavits of delayed registration of birth and/or foundling certificates for the purpose of misrepresenting the age of a child to facilitate child marriage or evade liability.
The penalty is prision mayor in its medium period, which is equivalent to eight years and one day to 10 years of imprisonment, and a fine of Php40,000.00. However, the penalty of prision mayor shall be imposed in its maximum period, or equivalent to 10 years and one day to 12 years of imprisonment, and a fine of Php50,000.00 if the perpetrator is an ascendant, parent, adoptive parent, step-parent, or guardian of the child.
The offense of “solemnization of child marriage” is committed by any person who performs or officiates a child marriage, and shall suffer the penalty of prision mayor in its maximum period and a fine of not less than Php50,000.
The crime of “cohabitation of an adult with a child outside wedlock” is punishable by prision mayor in its maximum period and a fine of not less than Php50,000.00. This is an expanded concept of child marriage because the illicit union produces the same adverse effects of child marriage.
If the perpetrator is a public officer, he or she shall be dismissed from the service and may be perpetually disqualified from holding office at the discretion of the proper court.
The foregoing unlawful and prohibited acts are deemed public crimes and can be initiated by any concerned individual. Moreover, a child marriage is void ab initio, and the action or defense for the declaration of absolute nullity of a child marriage shall not prescribe.
Considering that a vast majority of child marriages occur among Muslim Filipinos and indigenous cultural communities due to customary practices, a one-year transition period is granted to Muslims and indigenous peoples. During the transition period, the penal provisions on the facilitation of child marriage and the solemnization of child marriage shall be suspended for the said groups, and the National Commission on Muslim Filipinos and the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples “shall extensively undertake measures and programs in their respective jurisdictions to assure full compliance with this Act.”
But the role and responsibility of legislators do not end with the signing into law of the anti-child marriage bill. Parliamentarians have just accomplished the first step in criminalizing the abhorrent act of child marriage.
Legislators must also take the lead in the passage of relevant gender responsive legislation and appropriate national policies that will eliminate the very root causes of child marriage – poverty disproportionately affecting women and girls; long-standing gender inequalities and inequities; discrimination and the low status of girls; traditional customs harmful to girls; unfair employment practices and unequal pay for the same kind of work; and fewer chances of promotion for women in the workplace, among other drivers.
Members of the Congress should be at the forefront of efforts to enact laws that will put girls first – like laws providing economic incentives particularly to girls and their families, enhancing girls’ access to higher education, ensuring adolescent reproductive health, and giving additional protection for girls against violence and assault.
Moreover, since the Congress, particularly the House of Representatives, initiates appropriation measures and has the power of the purse or the authority over the nation’s checkbook, legislators must be able to ensure that the national budget supports the enduring commitment to the welfare of women and girls.
Hopefully, the 800,000 documented annual child marriages in the Philippines will soon be relics of the past and young girls will be liberated from the shackles of premature matrimony.