Taking pivotal steps to end child marriage
Measures to eliminate the harmful practice of child marriage are gaining ground in the Philippines. Four bills have been filed in Congress that aim to penalize the facilitators and solemnizers of child marriage, which may include parents or legal guardians. The bills also propose a coordinated set of preventive actions across government bodies and communities to transform the cultural attitudes and gender stereotypes underpinning violence against the girl child. What, then, will it take to reach the collective tipping point needed to close legal loopholes and transform the limiting beliefs that enable child marriage to persist? A wait-and-see approach toward this discriminatory practice which continues to threaten the rights, health, and well-being of thousands of children, predominantly girls, should never be an acceptable option.
Oxfam joined the Philippine Legislators’ Committee on Population and Development Foundation, children’s networks, government agencies, and other development partners in this year’s first public hearing set by the Senate committee on women, family relations and gender equality. We expressed support for the “Girls Not Brides” bill, which defines child marriage as a grave form of abuse and exploitation that endangers the survival and development of children. During plenary, a rich discussion ensued on how child marriage is, in itself, a human rights violation; and that it violates the rights to health, education, access to sexual and reproductive health care, and to live free from coercion and violence. Since child marriage also heightens the risk of early or unplanned pregnancies, there are serious consequences in a country where the maternal mortality rate remains extremely high; and where the soaring adolescent pregnancy rate was declared a “national social emergency” by no less than the socioeconomic planning secretary and the Commission on Population and Development.
In Oxfam’s humanitarian responses, such as in Cagayan Valley and Lanao del Sur, there is substantial empirical evidence that child marriage incidents increase in areas disproportionately affected by persistent poverty, disasters, and other crisis situations. Oxfam also presented its research before the plenary showing that, even in times of stability, the social and gender norms fueling the practice of child marriage are linked to the barriers girls and women face in accessing sexual and reproductive health information and services. These include norms that establish men as the sole authority when it comes to family decisions, such as spending priorities or contraception use. There are also cultural expectations that rationalize the policing of women and girls’ bodies in relation to sexuality — whether by requiring sexual abstinence before marriage or equating virginity with notions of purity and worth.
Enacting strong legislation prohibiting child marriage is a pivotal step toward
increasing legal and social protections for girls and women. It will affirm that the Philippine government is, indeed, serious about its commitment to achieving the Sustainable Development Goal target of eliminating child marriage by 2030. Much is already known about the complementary interventions that work. Promoting gender-just education, improving access to justice, influencing community attitudes through culturally-appropriate campaigns, redistributing unpaid care and domestic work, and ensuring young people can access rights- and evidence-based comprehensive sexuality education, are a few examples.
Societal discomfort in tackling child marriage head on most likely stems from the reality that we, as Filipinos, still have to systematically dismantle many shared beliefs, mostly unwritten, held by the communities we belong to. At the household level, we will have to confront the roles we and our families play in reinforcing the invisible systems and power dynamics that reward conformity and punish the perceived “disobedience” of girls and women. Considering the breadth and depth of the work needed to address all these underlying issues, ending child marriage is, necessarily, a shared responsibility between a broad range of actors and decision-makers—ourselves included.
Patricia Miranda is the policy advocacy lead of Oxfam Pilipinas. Oxfam is an international confederation of 19 humanitarian and development organizations working in more than 90 countries.
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