Earlier this month, the House of Representatives approved on third and final reading House Bill 9943 or An Act Prohibiting the Practice of Child Marriage. (There is a similar measure that has passed second reading in the Senate.) The bill reinforces the general prohibition of marriage for those below 18 years of age, and adds penalties against solemnizing officers, parents, guardians or adults who facilitate or arrange child marriages.
If this seems unnecessary to you because the minimum age of marriage in the Family Code is 18, then you may not have seen the troubling statistics. According to a policy brief by the United Nations Population Fund, one in six Filipino girls marry before they turn 18, and as of 2019 we were ranked 10th in the world for number of child marriages. The executive director of the Commission on Population and Development has said that about 40 to 50 children aged 10 to 14 years old give birth every week, and that there are about 130,000 babies from women younger than 20 years old who were fathered by men who are 20 years of age or older. While child marriage is not the only factor in these figures, a stronger prohibition accompanied by the raising of the age of sexual consent could help combat the rise in teenage pregnancies that has been exacerbated by the pandemic.
It’s important to also remember that while the Family Code governs Filipinos in general, there are special laws that are in place, such as the Code of Muslim Personal Laws, which allow a lower age of marriage for specific sectors. Senator Hontiveros, one of the authors of the Senate Bill, has stated that the ensuing law intends to amend even such specialized laws and make 18 years old the universal legal age for marriage. While traditions and beliefs must be respected, and some communities also have traditional protections built in that could provide safeguards or escape from undesirable matches, the best interests of the children require much more stringent and institutionalized protections if the risk posed by early marriage is high. And those risks are astronomical, not just for the children in the marriage, but for their own children and communities as well.
For one thing, giving birth is not meant for women who are not fully grown – complications from pregnancy and childbirth are among the leading causes of death in girls aged 15-19, and worldwide almost all of those come from within the context of child marriage. Girls who are married before the age of 15 are also 50 percent more likely to suffer from intimate partner violence than those who marry later, hardly surprising when many of them are married to much older men who are not looking for an equal partner.
The WHO has also made it clear that early childbearing carries risks for the children as well, stating that babies born to mothers under 20 years of age (not even 18!) face higher risks of low birth weight, preterm delivery and severe neonatal conditions.
There is a reason why child marriage is seen by many to not only be abuse of children, but a form of gender-based violence. An overwhelming amount of child marriages involve young girls – in the Philippines four times that of the young boys – and the bodies of girls bear a disproportionate amount of the dangers.
All these are objective risks to the physical health of young brides, but the risk of harm hangs over more than just the body. In the consummation of marriage, or in being pressured to prove their fertility, girls are forced to have sex before they may be mentally and emotionally ready to do so, and before they may have complete knowledge of their reproductive rights. They lose many opportunities that would allow them to be independent and self-sufficient in the future – a chance to pursue further education, or cultivate a larger group of friends and classmates, or pursue careers or vocations that do not involve the home.
The limitations are all the more pronounced when a child is born, especially for new mothers who are expected to be homemakers. A true marriage is not at all like a cage, or a ball-and-chain, no matter the number of times those patriarchal jokes are told – but for a child, marriage may very well be just that, a confinement to the nest before they have really taken flight.
And sabotaging their futures in this way, not allowing them the time to fully develop and mature as individuals before they join with another, creates harm that ripples beyond themselves. Child marriage has negative impacts on eight of seventeen of the sustainable development goals: it is both a consequence and a driver of poverty, can lead to babies who suffer from poor nutrition, perpetuates gender inequalities and increases the risks of physical, mental and emotional harm to children.
This is not to say that implementing a universal ban on child marriages will be easy. There must be sensitivity and consultation when it is integrated into cultures where the practice has been allowed, and there must be assistance given for those already in these kinds of unions. Any law must also be clear about the extent of its effects. But the support for it has never been stronger, from the halls of Congress to the Bangsamoro Women Commission. The time to act is now.
Age alone doesn’t determine maturity. But a child who is mature enough, in body and mind, will still be mature when they reach adulthood… and a child who is not could lose more than their childhood – they could lose their future as well.
Child marriage risks violation of the rights of children – but more than that, it violates their right to be children. To learn, grow, mature and experience life at their own pace, in their own time.
For their sake, let us join hands in pushing for a more mature matrimony.
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