Bangsamoro body tackles child marriage: Legal, yes; but moral?
(First of two parts)
MANILA, Philippines — Imagine a girl barely into her teens being married to a 48-year-old man.
Photos posted online show a wedding ceremony on Oct. 22, 2020, between Abdukrzak Ampatuan, a farmer from the municipality of Mamasapano in Maguindanao province, and a 13-year-old who will henceforth tend to his children from previous marriages.
Some comments on the post said it was better than the girl getting pregnant with no one coming forward as her child’s father; others called for respect for the traditions and culture of the couple.
Under Article 5 of the Family Code of the Philippines, the legal minimum age of marriage for both males and females is 18. On the other hand, Presidential Decree No. 1083, or the Code of Muslim Personal Laws of the Philippines, states that Muslim girls and boys can marry at 15, and the Sharia court may order the solemnization of marriage of a female who has attained puberty at 12.
But this is the position on the issue of Helen Rojas, chief of staff of the Bangsamoro Women Commission (BWC): “Not all legal [matters] are moral. Even if it is allowed in our religion, even if it’s a part of our culture and tradition, it does not necessarily follow that [the practice of child marriage] is OK.”
Rojas says that in armed-conflict settings in the two-year-old Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM), child, early or forced marriage has become the “face” of gender-based violence.
That is why the BWC, a BARMM agency attached to the Office of the Chief Minister, is drafting the region’s Gender and Development Code, where a proposed provision seeks to amend PD 1083 to raise the minimum prescribed age for marriage.
“We have a fatwa (legal opinion) that says our religious Muslim leaders are recommending the age for marriage to be 18 years old, considering the harmful effects [of child marriage] to the young girls,” Rojas said.
In the Philippines, one in every six girls is married before the age of 18, according to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). The estimated number of child brides in the BARMM is 88,600 girls, per the BWC.
Among the reasons for child marriage is economic: “Girls are either seen as an economic burden or valued as a capital for their exchange value in terms of goods, money or livestock,” says the UNFPA.
It is also perceived as a “survival strategy” for parents in situations of insecurity and poverty due to natural disasters and armed conflicts. They think marrying off their daughters is a way to “secure” their future.
This was evident during the siege of Marawi City in 2017, according to a study by Plan International, a nongovernmental organization that advances children’s rights and equality for girls. The study shows that child marriage is the most common form of gender-based violence as it appears to be “one of the coping mechanisms” of displaced families confronted with economic instability, fear of violence and the need to maintain family honor.
In her Bangsamoro State of Women Address on Nov. 25, 2020, BARMM Member of Parliament and BWC chair Bainon Karon said child marriage “may serve some benefit for the girl’s family for a while,” but is detrimental to Moros’ development as a “bangsa” (nation).
“[It] makes us all poorer in the end. As girls are not given a chance to develop themselves, we in the Bangsamoro are missing out on the potential contributions of our talented and bright girl-children,” Karon said.
Child marriage is regarded as necessary to “control girls’ sexuality,” the UNFPA says, adding that for victims of sexual violence, it is a way to “protect the family honor.”
Rojas cites cases of young girls who were raped and then married off to their perpetrators as a way “to redeem [the girl’s] pride and dignity.”
Says Amirah Ali Lidasan, spokesperson of the group Suara Bangsamoro: “People use religion and culture as justification for child marriage, yet we know that its bottom line is for the parents to escape the responsibility of looking after their children.”
But the impact of early marriage and pregnancy is deadly. The UNFPA says that mothers between the ages of 15 and 19 are twice as likely to die of pregnancy and childbirth complications than women age 20-24.
In the town of Guindulungan in Maguindanao, a 13-year-old girl died of internal bleeding because her womb was too soft to carry a baby. And, said Karon, “children of adolescents are prone to stunting, severe and acute malnutrition, and consequently, early death.”
Also, child brides are more likely to experience domestic violence. In her speech, Karon said 33 percent of those who sought help through the BWC’s violence against women hotline were young wives married before they reached the age of 18.
But the numbers could be more. “In our communities, how many girl-brides and girl-mothers do we see? What is happening to them?” Karon said.
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