Philippines takes key step to end child marriages


According to Oxfam, child marriage is most prevalent in the southern region of Mindanao, where Muslims are allowed to have more than one wife, and girls as young as 13 can marry. - FIlepic

Amid cheers, applause and beating drums, a 13-year-old girl is married to a man three times her senior. The ceremony in the southern Philippines goes viral - only days after legislators took a key step to end child marriages in the country.

The bride wore a white traditional wedding dress with gold trimmings and red lipstick, but these could not hide the 35-year gap between her and her groom, a 48-year-old farmer who was married four times before.

"I really love him," the girl, whose real name has been withheld, later told a local television report. "He is good to me, and he loves me and my parents."

The man, who paid a dowry of US$625, separated from his other wives and decided to look for a new spouse to take care of his three children - who are almost the same age as his new wife.

The couple appears happy in the local news report from November 2020, triggering angry reactions from viewers. Most condemned the groom and what one described as "one of the most disgusting traditions" in the southern Philippines.

"Poor kid. No decision of her own. Sold by her parents with 'culture' as an excuse," one viewer commented online.

Child marriages are however on track to be outlawed soon in the Philippines, where there are an estimated 726,000 girl brides - the 12th highest number of child marriages in the world.

In November, the Philippine Senate approved the Girls Not Brides Act, punishing anyone who performs and participates in a child marriage with imprisonment, fines and loss of child custody.

The bill also voids all existing child marriages and includes government programmes to educate the public about the impact of forcing girls into early marriage.

The bill however still needs to be passed by the House of Representatives and to be approved by the president. A vote has not been scheduled yet.

"It's heartbreaking because these girls are deprived of their future, of a life of their own making," said Senator Risa Hontiveros, co-author of the bill.

"It is also infuriating that despite our efforts to stop this practice, there are still adults who take advantage of our girls and who make it seem as though child marriage is the only way out of poverty," Hontiveros added.

In one case documented by the charity Oxfam, which leads a campaign to end child marriages, a woman identified as Tanumbay said she was only 10 years old when she was married to a man 20 years older than her.

"I didn't want to marry, but I had no choice," she told Oxfam. "It was my father's wish before he died." Tanumbay, now 24, did not go to school because her family was poor. She now has five children and is trapped in a similar cycle of poverty.

According to Oxfam, child marriage is most prevalent in the southern region of Mindanao, where Muslims are allowed to have more than one wife, and girls as young as 13 can marry.

There are more child marriages in areas that are poor or racked by conflict or humanitarian crises.

But even in times of stability, archaic social and gender norms fuel child marriage, said Lot Felizco, Oxfam's country director in the Philippines.

"These include norms that establish men as the sole authority when it comes to family decisions, such as spending priorities or contraception use," Felizco said. "There are also cultural expectations that rationalize the policing of women and girls' bodies in relation to sexuality."

Despite the progress in legislation, with approval in the lower house of parliament pending, change will not come overnight, according to Hontiveros.

"While we have had optimistic development on the legislation prohibiting child marriages in the Philippines, it is still insufficient [in order] to dismantle societal beliefs that can lead to transformative processes of change," Hontiveros said.

"There is still a danger that it will continue, that is why people and communities have to own the legislation," Hontiveros said, adding that the participation of the people was needed to ensure that the law is implemented.

To create a shift in cultural norms, it is necessary to fight gender inequality more broadly and promote and strengthen women's rights, Hontiveros said.

"We can protect our girls from forced marriages by recognizing and tearing down gender inequalities that hinder females from fully and unapologetically enjoying our human rights," Hontiveros said. - dpa

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