THE pristine innocence and enviable happiness of children must not be marred and cut short by early child marriage.
Accordingly, the United Nations Convention on Consent to Marriage provides that States Parties “shall take legislative action to specify a minimum age for marriage”, and the Convention on the Rights of the Child mandates the abolition of “traditional practices prejudicial to the health of children”. The Philippines, as a State Party to both conventions, fixes in its Family Code the age of 18 years as the minimum marriageable age for both male and female, subject to parental consent or parental advice as may be applicable. Many countries also prescribe 18 years as the minimum age for marriage which effectively makes child marriage illegal and void.
Nevertheless, the UNICEF reports that 20 million girls under 18 are married worldwide each year. The United Nations World Population Prospect ranks the Philippines as the 10th country with the highest absolute number of child marriages at 808,000 in 2019. The 2017 Philippine National Demographic and Health Survey documents that 1 out of 6 Filipino girls are married before they turn 18. The Philippines’ adverse situation is due to the practice of child marriage by Filipino Muslims and indigenous peoples, in addition to cohabitations outside wedlock or illicit live-in unions involving adult men and young girls.
Studies show the following deleterious effects of child marriage:
- It vitiates marital consent because either or both the child bride and groom are underage to give valid consent.
- It violates the human rights of children under international conventions and domestic laws. A child’s freedom from abuse, violence, discrimination, and sexual exploitation, and rights to life and human development, education, health, privacy, remunerative work, and consensual marriage are derogated and lost when a child is prematurely married and burdened with maternal and familial responsibilities. A child’s childhood is then forfeited forever.
- It compromises the child bride’s maternal health and her infant’s health outcomes. Well documented are the long-term risks of teenage motherhood consequences on both mother and child. The British medical journal Lancet reveals that maternal death rate for girls below 20 years is almost 30 percent higher than for women aged 20 to 24 years. Moreover, teenage mothers experience higher rates of postpartum depression and other debilitations. Infants born to teen mothers are more likely to be pre-term, have lower birth weight and experience more developmental problems and higher neo-natal mortality.
- It exposes the child bride to economic vulnerabilities as she is deprived of completing her education, attaining adequate work skills, and securing remunerative employment. The book Kids Having Kids: Economic Costs and Social Consequences of Teen Pregnancy shows that teenage mothers are less likely to complete high school and are more likely to live in poverty. Since early childbearing is linked to lower educational attainment, it is also directly related to less opportunities, minimal wages, and lower family income.
- It perpetuates intergenerational poverty. The Commission on Population and Development has long warned that the economic implications of early childbearing spread across generations. Teen parents experience more financial difficulties and find it harder to liberate their families from poverty. Moreover, children of teenage parents have a higher probability of becoming teenage parents themselves, thus perpetuating the cruel cycle of poverty instigated by child marriage and adolescent childbirth.
Many Muslim countries now prohibit by legislation child marriage, like Indonesia, the largest Muslim nation in the world, and Bangladesh which has the second highest absolute number of child marriages of 4,382,000 in 2019. These Muslim nations have customary laws similar to the Philippine Code of Muslim Personal Laws, the latter allowing marriages between a boy aged 15 and a girl who has reached puberty, which ordinarily occurs below the age of 14. Archaic cultural and customary practices cannot sacrifice children to the disastrous consequences of child marriages which must be outlawed for general enforcement.
The concept of “child marriage” must be revised to include cohabitations outside of wedlock between children, and between adult men and young girls. These live-in unions should be proscribed because they have the same adverse consequences of child marriages.
The passage of a law prohibiting child marriages and clandestine live-in unions involving children must be reinforced by the creation of a social environment where child marriage cannot breed. Government must implement the following policies: a) empowering girls with information, skills and support networks; b) enhancing girls’ access to and completion of quality education; c) providing economic support and incentives to girls and their families; and d) encouraging parents and community leaders to stamp out child marriages.
There are four almost identical House bills filed in the 18th Congress seeking the prohibition of child marriage. The principal authors are Reps. Bernadette “BH” Herrera-Dy, Alfred Vargas, Josephine Veronique Lacson-Noel, Joy Myra S. Tambunting, and me. The committee on women and gender equality under the stewardship of Rep. Malou Acosta-Alba has approved in principle the allied measures and has deputized the committee secretariat to come out soonest with a consolidated and substitute bill.
With the Senate counterpart bill already approved, it is earnestly hoped that the 18th Congress will enact the law prohibiting child marriage, together with kindred legislations on preventing adolescent pregnancy and reinstituting absolute divorce.
This optimism is inspired by Speaker Lord Allan Velasco, who in his foreword to the relaunched updated handbook On How to be a Gender Responsive Legislator, underscored that “there remains a lot to be done to dismantle the laws and policies that discriminate or otherwise impede the attainment of healthy and fulfilling lives of women and girls at many levels of our society. Congress has the capacity to enact transformative laws for women and girls through its legislative priorities, structures, policies, and processes.”