Marriage and culture
It was a long battle to get a law finally passed to ban child marriage in the Philippines. I’m referring to Republic Act No. 11596, which was signed into law on Dec. 10, 2021, with nongovernment organizations, mainly women’s and child welfare organizations, taking the lead, with gentle prodding from Unicef. The bill’s main sponsor was Sen. Risa Hontiveros.
A group of members of the BARMM (Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao) parliament have opposed the new law, with BARMM Labor Minister Romeo Sema arguing “It is cultural, very hard to change.”
Inquirer articles (by Rufa Cagoco-Guiam on Monday, and by Nina Bahjin-Imlan and Rod Matucan on Tuesday) from Bangsamoro have refuted the BARMM position.
My column today will be from the perspective of an anthropologist tackling this issue of “culture,” a word which is often used to refer to beliefs and practices which is often sacralized, something that should not be changed.
Anthropologists and social scientists look at institutions like marriage as societies’ responses to needs, changing as society changes.
On the national level, our laws on marriage reflect this dynamism. For decades we followed 19th-century Spanish civil law, which allowed marriages at age 12. Such early marriages were common and arranged. For the wealthy, it was to consolidate economic and political power of two families.
Under the Americans, a marriage law that went into effect in 1930 prescribed a minimum age of 14 for females and 16 for males, with parental consent required if the male is less than 20 years and the female less than 18 years.
These low marriageable ages stayed on until 1987 with a Family Code (Executive Order No. 209) increasing the minimum age of marriage, for both males and females, to 18. Between the ages of 18 and 21, parental consent is required and between 21 and 24, parental advice.
There were exemptions. Muslims were bound by a 1977 Code of Muslim Personal Laws that prescribed a minimum age of 15 for marriage, but provided an additional exemption for girls below the age of 15 if they were already menstruating and an appeal was made by a wali or guardian.
Indigenous communities were allowed to use custom law, usually referred to as adat, which generally do not give a minimum age and instead prescribe puberty as allowing marriage.
In hunting-gathering and agricultural societies, the transition from childhood to adulthood happened early since there were not too many options in life. Today, our complex times require much more preparation for adult responsibilities, which means prolonged dependence of children on their parents.
The new Philippine law prohibiting child marriages labels it as a form of sexual abuse, and a violation of human rights. This perspective evolved together with notions of human rights, and recognizing that children, too, have rights.
Gender discrimination against females also encourages child marriages, daughters seen as dispensable especially in times of economic crisis, or in times of war.
Girls Not Brides, an international coalition of nongovernment organizations opposed to child marriage, points out that while legislation banning child marriages is very important, comprehensive approaches are needed to finally put an end to this practice, and this includes empowering girls themselves through education.
Pia Perez, the principal of a school in Mindanao, told me they do lose “lumad” (indigenous communities) girls to child marriages, parents marrying off their daughters to get a dowry from the groom’s family, sometimes for as little as a sack of rice. It’s not just getting the dowry but having one less mouth to feed.
But Pia says that some of the lumad daughters fight back and resist being married off, having learned about their rights in school. Teachers intervene as well to explain to the parents that the family’s future will be better if the daughters get a higher education.
The problem now is that so many lumad schools have been closed down after being accused of being communist fronts. This forces lumad children to stay out of school or to enter public schools where they receive little or no education on their rights, even being left on their own as they face discrimination coming from non-lumad students and teachers. Given this situation, chances are high that a young lumad girl will face greater risks of being married off early, even with the new law.
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