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Ending child marriage is our shared responsibility

Public hearing on child, early, and forced marriage (Photo: Rina Fulo/Oxfam)

The campaign to criminalize child marriage is gaining ground in the Philippines. So far, this 18th Congress, four bills have been filed in both houses that aim to penalize perpetrators of child marriage, including parents or legal guardians who facilitate this harmful practice. 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 women and girls. 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 towards this discriminatory practice which continues to threaten the rights, health, and wellbeing of thousands of children, predominantly girls, should never be an acceptable option.

In January 2020, 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 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, evidence abounds that gender-based violence, including child marriage, increases in communities disproportionately affected by persistent poverty and disasters, worsened by pre-existing social inequalities. Oxfam also presented its research before the plenary, showing that, even in times of stability, the social and gender norms fuelling 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 for family decisions, such as spending priorities or contraception use. There are also cultural expectations that rationalize the policing of women and girls’ bodies concerning 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 towards 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 will most likely stem from the recognition that we, as Filipinos, will 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 harmful 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.

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Patricia Miranda is the Policy, Advocacy, and Communications Manager of Oxfam Philippines. Oxfam is an international confederation of 20 humanitarian and development organizations working in more than 90 countries.