(Speech of Rep. Edcel C. Lagman during the Roundtable Discussion on Policy Reform to End Child, Early and Forced Marriages on 07 March 2018 at the House of Representatives)
Child, early and forced marriages (CEFMs) seem to be practices that hark back to the Dark Ages or a plot in a tearjerker telenovela. The archaic image of the innocent and ill-fated child bride is one that is readily associated with primitive tribes or nations in Africa or South Asia, not with a country like the Philippines – a country that has consistently performed very well in gender surveys and ranked high in global assessments measuring indicators of women empowerment.
But the scourge of CEFMs is not restricted to soap operas and countries like India and tribes like the Masai in Kenya. There are child brides in the Philippines. It is happening in our country and the numbers are alarming.
Almost 70 years ago in 1948 the UN General Assembly proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which asserted that: “Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family.
It further continued that: “Marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses.”
The language of the UDHR is clear and unequivocal: (1) a party to a marriage must be “of full age” or the age in which a person is granted by law the rights and responsibilities of an adult; and (2) he or she must be able to give his or her “free and full consent”.
A person below the age of majority, which in the Philippines is 18 years old, is a minor, cannot enter into a contract, and give his or her “free and full consent” to a marriage.
Deciding who to marry and building a life with one’s spouse is a momentous decision that no one should be deprived of making. It is a decision that will be vital to one’s happiness, welfare, and wellbeing. A child below 18 will not be ready to make any life altering decisions that will have long-term and lasting consequences.
DEFINING THE OBJECTIONABLE PRACTICE OF CEFM
CEFMs robs young people, especially girls, of their childhood and is a human rights violation that places her health at risk, disrupts her education, negatively impacts on her children and the quality of care they will receive, limits her opportunities for empowerment and social development, and increases her risk of exposure to violence and abuse.
The comprehensive definition of CEFM in Resolution 68/148 adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 2013 defines child marriage as any “marriage in which at least one of the parties is a child” or below 18 years old.
On the other hand, early marriage can refer to marriages where “both spouses are 18 or older but other factors make them unready to consent to marriage, such as their level of physical, emotional, sexual and psychosocial development, or a lack of information regarding the person’s life options”. Furthermore, “any marriage which occurs without the full and free consent of one or both of the parties and/or where one or both of the parties is/are unable to end or leave the marriage, including as a result of duress or intense social or family pressure”, also falls within the definition of CEFM.
Forced marriage is one that occurs without the express consent of either one or both of the parties. Usually, the party whose consent is not sought is the girl and she is typically forced or coerced into marriage.
CEFM IS HAPPENING IN OUR OWN BACKYARD
CEFMs in the Philippines are made more insidious and menacing because they are cloaked in legality and disguised with the trappings of religious practices and cultural norms.
Like all young people, these child brides have hopes and dreams for their future and these dreams are put on hold or worse, forsaken, when they are forced into marriages, required to become mothers and have to abandon opportunities for further education and personal development.
Because the issue of CEFMs is concealed under the mantle of traditional laws and acknowledged customary practices, it has sadly fallen through the cracks and very little is being done to end this objectionable and odious practice.
Data from the latest National Demographic and Health Survey reveal that 15% of marriages in the country involve young people 18 years old and below. Of this number, 2.0% is comprised of children 15 years old and below.
Considering that in 2015 the Philippines Statistics Office pegged the number of marriages in the country at around 430,000, we can extrapolate that 64,500 of these marriages involved young people 18 years old and below and from this number, 63,210 marriages included teenagers 16-18 years old and 1,290 of said marital unions involved mere children 15 years old and below.
Child marriage is clearly a violation of the most basic of human rights – the right to make free and informed decisions and the right not to jeopardize one’s future.
CODE OF MUSLIM PERSONAL LAWS AND INGRAINED CUSTOMS LEND A BADGE OF LEGALITY TO CEFMs
Article 16 of Presidential Decree 1083 or the “Code of Muslim Personal Laws” states that the following have the capacity to contract marriage:
“(1) Any Muslim male at least fifteen years of age and any Muslim female of the age of puberty or upwards and not suffering from any impediment under the provisions of this Code may contract marriage. A female is presumed to have attained puberty upon reaching the age of fifteen.
“(2) However, the Shari'a District Court may, upon petition of a proper wali, order the solemnization of the marriage of a female who though less than fifteen but not below twelve years of age, has attained puberty.
“(3) Marriage through a wali by a minor below the prescribed ages shall be regarded as betrothal and may be annulled upon the petition of either party within four years after attaining the age of puberty, provided no voluntary cohabitation has taken place and the wali who contracted the marriage was other than the father or paternal grandfather.”
The above provisions allow boys as young as 15 and girls as young as 12 years old to be married off and even authorizes the marriage of children below the prescribed ages as long as it is made through a wali or a “proper guardian in marriage”.
Indigenous Filipino tribes like the T’boli and Blaan of South Central Mindanao and Aetas, particularly the Dumagat branch, still traditionally practice CEFM.
It is clear that cultural beliefs, poverty and societal pressure exert substantial influence on the practice of CEFMs. Studies consistently show that it occurs more frequently among girls who are the least educated, poorest and living in rural areas. These deeply-rooted and often-unchallenged cultural practices denigrate women’s human rights and curtail their ability to play an equal role in their homes and communities.
Outdated provisions like those contained in PD 1083 which have no place in a modern and progressive body of laws; entrenched customs and cultural practices; and traditional marriage rituals among a number of indigenous Filipino groups have veiled CEFMs in legality and have contributed to their prevalence and the seeming lack of opposition to their practice.
NATIONAL LAWS, INTERNATIONAL CONVENTIONS AGAINST CHILD BRIDES AND FORCED MARRIAGES
A positive implementation of a comprehensive range of laws are relevant to the issue of CEFM, including but not limited to, RA 7610 or the “Special Protection of Children Against Abuse, Exploitation and Discrimination Act of 1992”, the Family Code of the Philippines and RA No. 9710 or the “Magna Carta of Women”.
Article 5 of the Family Code sets the minimum legal age of marriage at 18, and parental consent is required for persons under 21.
Section 19 of the Magna Carta for Women guarantees equal rights between men and women in all matters relating to marriage and family relations (e.g. the right to freely choose a spouse) and covers the issue of CEFM under the title “Equal rights in all matters relating to marriage and family relations”.
Specific laws, in addition to the Revised Penal Code, criminalize practices indirectly linked to CEFM: RA 9262 or the “Anti-Violence Against Women and their Children Act of 2004”, RA 9344 or the “Juvenile Justice and Welfare Act of 2006” and RA 8353 or the the Anti Rape Law of 1997.
The issue of child or forced marriage is also addressed in a number of international conventions that the Philippines is signatory to.
The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) under Article 16 (1) specifically directs that “States Parties shall take all appropriate measures to eliminate discrimination against women in all matters relating to marriage and family relations and in particular shall ensure, on a basis of equality of men and women: (a) The same right to enter into marriage; (b) The same right freely to choose a spouse and to enter into marriage only with their free and full consent”.
Moreover, CEDAW also asserts the right to protection from child marriage in Article 16 (2), which states: “The betrothal and the marriage of a child shall have no legal effect, and all necessary action, including legislation, shall be taken to specify a minimum age for marriage….”
Finally, Paragraph (f) of Article 2 of CEDAW also mandates States Parties like the Philippines to “take all appropriate measures, including legislation, to modify or abolish existing laws, regulations, customs and practices which constitute discrimination against women”.
It must be underscored that the Philippines was the first country in Southeast Asia to ratify CEDAW which is also known as the International Bill of Rights of Women in 1981.
Although marriage is not mentioned directly in the Convention on the Rights of the Child, child marriage is linked to other rights – such as the right to freedom of expression, the right to protection from all forms of abuse, and the right to be protected from harmful traditional practices.
Even as the Philippines must abide strictly by the mandate of these national laws and international conventions, it is still imperative for the Congress to repeal the offensive provisions of PD 1083. A categorical repudiation by the Congress of CEFMs is indispensable.
The rights of girls and young women to good health, relevant education, employment opportunities, the chance to make informed reproductive health decisions and contribute to her community must take precedence over long-held although archaic religious customs and valued but regressive cultural traditions.
Surely, the lives and welfare of girls matter more than rituals and tradition.
EFFECTS OF CEFMs ON THE LIVES OF GIRLS
The deleterious effects of child, early and forced marriages, especially on girls, grows exponentially because CEFMs affect almost every aspect of a girl’s development from the dangers of early childbearing to discontinuing education for child rearing and lost opportunities for personal growth and meaningful contributions to the community.
This practice is detrimental to the development of teenagers because early marriage, especially if it is forced upon the child, robs the young girl of the opportunity to be physically, psychologically, emotionally and financially ready for the responsibilities of marriage, childbearing and child rearing.
It must be also underscored that there is a more deadly side to child marriage – girls under 15 are five times more likely to die in childbirth than women in their 20s and more likely to experience complications of childbirth.
LEGAL AND REGULATORY FRAMEWORK TO COMBAT EARLY MARRIAGE
We already have the tools to end CEFMs. All we have to do is to use them properly and judiciously. The Executive must ensure that relevant international human rights instruments that the country has long ratified and endorsed are upheld even as it must guarantee that existing domestic legislation is strictly enforced so that every girl is protected from being married too young or against her will.
But to be able to address the problem squarely, the Congress must repeal portions of PD 1083 that undermine the right of girls to protection from all forms of abuse and the right to be shielded from harmful and damaging religious customs and traditional practices.
The enforcement and upholding of laws and policies aimed at preventing CEFMs and the repeal of statutes that allow child marriage for cultural and religious purposes are necessary to end this unjust and dangerous practice once and for all.
Child marriage has such a devastating impact on girls’ health, education, personal development, future opportunities, and economic empowerment that the global community has taken significant action against child marriage, more particularly within the United Nations framework. “Ending Child Early and Forced Marriage” is a target for Goal 5 of the Sustainable Development Goals to ensure Gender Equality by 2030.
Given that the issue of CEFM is deeply rooted in gender inequalities and inequities, outdated stereotypes and harmful practices, there is also a need to develop and implement all-inclusive, widespread and synchronized solutions and strategies, including an extensive campaign at the grassroots on the dangers and injustice of CEFMs and a crusade to educate young people on the disadvantages and difficulties of early marriage; strengthening of child protection systems; promotion of girls’ education up to the tertiary level; and advancement of girls’ and teenagers’ access to health care, including sexual and reproductive health.
A girl and her dreams must not be forsaken at the altar of misplaced traditions and antiquated beliefs.
We must remember that a girl with a dream, with proper guidance and encouragement, will grow up to become a woman with a vision.
We do not need child brides. We need women with vision – assertive and self-reliant women who participate in their communities and contribute to nation building. Educated, compassionate and upright women who willingly and ably take on various roles as mothers, professionals, and leaders who will be examples to girls as well as boys and will inspire them to also work for greater inclusiveness, social justice and genuine human development.