Child marriages in PH: It takes a village to also commit abuse

Child marriages in PH: It takes a village to also commit abuse

/ 05:34 AM December 03, 2023

‘STILL A STRUGGLE’ Representatives of government agencies,civil society and youth organizations discuss the challenges of enforcing the lawon child marriages at a forumheld in Quezon City on Thursday. —PHOTO COURTESY OF OXFAMPILIPINAS

‘STILL A STRUGGLE’ | Representatives of government agencies, civil society, and youth organizations discuss the challenges of enforcing the law on child marriages at a forum held in Quezon City on Thursday. (Photo from Oxfam Pilipinas)

MANILA, Philippines — It takes a village to raise a child, but the case of the controversial Socorro “cult” in Surigao del Norte strongly suggests that it also takes a village to abuse one. The leaders and members of the group have been charged with facilitating forced marriages among 21 minors.

Earlier in November, the Department of Justice filed criminal cases against members of Socorro Bayanihan Services Inc. for qualified trafficking in person, the facilitation and solemnization of child marriages, and child abuse.


The Socorro case could be a litmus test for the enforcement of the prohibition on child marriage (PCM) law, or Republic Act No. 11596, this being its first case, noted the humanitarian and development organization Oxfam Pilipinas.


Resistance persists

The case also illustrates the need to strengthen the implementation of the law banning early and enforced child marriages, said Jeanette Kindipan-Dulawan, gender justice portfolio manager of Oxfam, a global organization that campaigns against inequality to end poverty and injustice.

Months after the release of the law’s implementing rules and regulations (IRR) in June this year, resistance to the new policy in communities remains among the main challenges encountered by civil society organizations and government agencies working on the protection of women’s and girls’ rights.

In a panel discussion organized by Oxfam on Thursday, lawyer Twyla Rubin of the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) said there was a need to “have conversations” with religious, cultural, and community leaders because of resistance on the ground. Child marriages, she added, “are happening not only in the Bangsamoro region but also in indigenous communities and even in the National Capital Region.”

Lawyer Virginia Lacsa Suarez, chair of the group Kaisa-Ka, pointed out that the PCM law covers “not only marriages but also cohabitation, and that is very rampant here in Manila.”

According to the group Girls Not Brides, the Philippines ranks 10th among countries with the most number of child marriages, as 808,000 Filipino girls were married before they turned 18.

While the Family Code sets the marriageable age at 18, the 2017 National Demographic and Health Survey indicates that one out of 6, or 16.5 percent, of young women aged 20 to 24 got married before turning 18. The same survey shows that child brides were more likely to experience domestic abuse, with 26.4 percent of married women aged 15 to 19 reporting having experienced physical, sexual, or emotional violence.


The United Nations Population Fund in a 2020 policy brief pointed out that while some boys were also affected by child marriage, “the issue affects girls’ lives far more intensely as manifested often in poorer health and education outcomes, reduced employability, and higher risks (of) abuse and violence.”

‘Family matters’

In the Bangsamoro region, 68 percent of children and 62 percent of women belong to poor families, said Laisa Alamia, a member and minority leader of the Bangsamoro Transition Authority, during the panel discussion. The high cost of education and “family matters” kept some 28 percent of the Bangsamoro youth aged 3 to 24 from school in 2020, she added.

Meanwhile, the percentage of girls aged 15 to 19 who have started childbearing stands at 6.5 percent in the Bangsamoro region, higher than the national average of 5.3, Alamia said. With patriarchal societies conditioning families to see marriage “as a way out of poverty,” young girls and women in the region have become especially vulnerable to early marriage, she added.

Although she believes that child marriage “does not go against our customs and faith,” Alamia said ending child marriage has been a “slow but steady” struggle.

“The so-called cultures and traditions used in justifying child marriage are merely patriarchal norms that hinder us from realizing a society that operates on principles of justice and equality. These patriarchal norms thrive in a culture of poverty and disenfranchisement,” she pointed out.

“Protecting our religious and cultural diversity can only be practiced fully alongside efforts to protect the rights of women and children,” Alamia said. “Doing so heightens our appreciation for our faith, our agama, and community as we see the inherent value of each person regardless of their beliefs, sexual identity and expression, and social class,” she added.

Babydoll Mohamad of the Al Mujadilah Women’s Association similarly recalled how advocates and women’s rights organizations like them faced a backlash after the passage of the PCM law in 2021.

While the youth lauded the policy aimed at protecting their rights, there were also Bangsamoro community members who questioned the provisions on the criminalization of child marriage. The negative reactions, Mohamad said, came mostly from parents who questioned why they’d be treated as criminals for allowing child marriage.

“Kayong mga anak naming, papakulong niyo pala kami. Maatim niyo ba na ipakulong kami? (So you, our children, are going to send us to jail. Can you bear doing that?), Mohamad said, quoting the general sentiments she had heard.

A form of violence

Under RA 11596, child marriage is considered a form of violence against children as it violates their rights to protection and development. The law prohibits the facilitation and solemnization of child marriage, and living in or cohabitation between minors, or those 17 years old and below. Violators face penalties ranging from six to 12 years in prison, and fines of up to P50,000.

But more than the criminalization of the act, Mohamad underscored the need to focus on the prevention of child marriages. Alamia said as much. More than the punitive measures, communities must be empowered to change the patriarchal mindset that has perpetuated the practice, she said.

“We must enhance service delivery, especially on education, social services, development, and health, so we can expand the range of choices and opportunities that are available to families most vulnerable to early or forced marriage,” Alamia said.

Protecting children must start with the family, noted Social Welfare Assistant Secretary Elaine Fallarcuna. “When the family can’t protect them anymore, that’s when the government comes in. The Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) then takes custody of the child,” she said.

The agency currently has 11 “home for girls” nationwide where victim/survivors of child marriages can seek temporary shelter, the official said. With the law’s IRR published only in June, the DSWD is still working on different programs and services to implement the PCM law. The initiatives would have specific line items in the agency’s future budget, Fallarcuna added.

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The CHR, for its part, has committed to creating guidelines on how victims of child marriages can get legal assistance and referrals to concerned government agencies and authorities.

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