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Hundreds of ‘Girl Defenders’ join online rally, call for laws to end child marriage in PH

In time for the International Day of the Girl Child and a few weeks before the close of the second regular session of 18th Congress, more than 200 ‘Girl Defenders’ joined an online grand solidarity rally organized by Philippine Legislators’ Committee on Population and Development (PLCPD), with support from Oxfam Pilipinas. The rally was dubbed ‘#GirlDefenders Speak Out to End Child Marriage’ and was attended by lawmakers and campaigners from all over the Philippines who were calling for the immediate passage of the laws filed in both houses of Congress prohibiting child marriage.

Moreover, the Commission on Bangsamoro Women reported that, apart from supporting the said bills in Congress, they will also be pursuing the amendment of the ‘Code of Muslim Personal Laws’, which has been used as a basis for enabling child marriage in the country.

“Child marriage is a complex issue involving poverty, lack of education, and culture. In the Bangsamoro, child marriage happens because it has been a practice from one generation to another. We will, therefore, submit a resolution calling for the amendment of PD 1083 or the of ‘Code of Muslim Personal Laws’, especially Article 16, as the specific provision providing legal basis for child marriage,” says Atty. Hannah Magondato, representative of MP Hadja Bainon Guiabar Karon, Chair, Regional Commission on Bangsamoro Women.

For her part, Senator Risa Hontiveros, Chair of the Senate Committee on Women, Children, Family Relations and Gender Equality in the 18th Congress, who served as the keynote speaker, thanked the campaigners for their contribution in the crafting of the bill she sponsored in the Senate.

“I sponsored Senate Bill No. 1373, or the Girls Not Brides Act, which was supported by #GirlDefenders from Lanao del Sur, Maguindanao, and NCR. Thank you to the #GirlDefenders who put so much care and thought into the crafting of this bill. Cases of child marriage increase when a community is in the middle of a crisis. We only endanger our girls when we force them into a situation when we deprive them of education and economic prospects. That is why we should continue raising our voices and be each other’s’ keepers.”

Meanwhile, Canadian Ambassador to the Philippines Peter MacArthur reiterated Canada’s support through their development assistance to the Philippines, including sexual and reproductive health and rights, women’s rights and advocacy, and women’s economic empowerment, including measures to end child marriage.

“The #DayoftheGirl exists to promote the empowerment of young girls everywhere and the attainment of their human rights and bodily autonomy. Eliminating child marriage is the smart and right thing to shoot for. Let us all commit to breaking barriers. We are laying the foundation for girls to lead better lives to raise the next generation of better off boys and girls. We are all Girl Defenders,” says MacArthur.

Zahria Mapandi, Executive Director of Al-Mujadilah Development Foundation, a Maguindanao-based women’s organization, compared child marriage to an ‘early burial.’

“Today, we may not literally bury our girl children, but through forcing them into an early marriage, it is already like burying them with the negative effects of a child marriage,” she said.

“Some of these effects are removing the freedom to choose who they want to be with. Their freedom to continue their interpersonal growth was also taken away. They are just identified as child wives or child mothers.”

Noraida Abo, Executive Director of UnYPhil-Women, a women’s organization based in Lanao del
Sur, spotlighted the need for for the Bangsamoro leadership to step in and support the legislative measures.

“We are calling our Bangsamoro leadership to end child, early and forced marriage for the future of our Bangsamoro children.”

“Bangsamoro leaders, please, let us help each other. We want no more Bangsamoro children having children,” Abo added.

Gary Enriquez, Manager of Philippine Business for Social Progress, expressed solidarity and called for measures that will protect and promote the rights of women and girls.

“PBSP will continue to influence its more than 270 member companies and the business at large to adopt inclusive, gender- and culturally-sensitive business practices,  implement corporate social responsibility projects, and support laws and policies that will contribute to the empowerment of women and girls.”

Lot Felizco, Country Director of Oxfam Pilipinas, which has been supporting this legislative advocacy initiative, noted that the year 2020 marks the 25th anniversary since the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action that provides a framework for the achievement of irreversible and measurable progress towards gender equality and women’s empowerment.

“Oxfam stands with you all today in the call for 2020 to also be the year that a law is passed to close the legal loopholes that enable child marriage. Our partners in Oxfam’s ‘Creating Spaces’ project, UnyPhil Women and Al-Mujadilah Development Foundation from Lanao del Sur and Maguindanao, have reported an increase in child, early and forced marriage in evacuation centers  during government-imposed lockdowns amid ongoing armed conflict.”

“These reports are indeed extremely troubling – but not surprising. The risk of child, early and forced marriage increases in humanitarian settings. Therefore, the Covid-19 crisis and its far-reaching impacts underscore further why measures to protect the girl child must be enacted now. The enactment of a strong and gender-just law that champions the girl child must be seen as part of the Philippines’ commitments to the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action,” adds Felizco.

Likewise, Comm. Sandra Sanchez-Montano of Philippine Commission on Women emphasized the negative impacts of child marriage on girls.

“Child marriage is a form of violence against women that contributes to gender inequality and severely affects the development and health of girls. The PCW joins fellow Girl Defenders in the campaign to end child marriage and commits to this cause by continuing to fulfill our mission of creating an enabling environment for government and other stakeholders to be more responsive in achieving gender equality and empowerment.”

Pushing for laws to end child marriage

To date, four bills filed in both houses of Congress, seeking to penalize facilitators of child marriage and to create mechanisms to transform harmful attitudes and stereotypes underpinning violence against young girls. Three of these bills were filed in the Lower House by Representatives Josephine Lacson-Noel, Alfred Vargas, Bernadette Herrera-Dy, and Edcel Lagman. Senator Risa Hontiveros, Committee Chair and a key ‘Creating Spaces’ advocate, filed Senate Bill (SB) 162 or the ‘Girls Not Brides Act of 2019’, following advocacy and lobbying efforts by Oxfam and its partners.

In February 2020, Sen. Hontiveros filed a revised version (SB 1373) together with Sen. Leila de Lima, which incorporated recommendations by Oxfam to strengthen the participation of women and girls. While on March 4, 2020, in line with International Women’s Day, Sen. Hontiveros delivered a sponsorship speech, which explicitly mentions the ‘Creating Spaces’ project teams. Historically, it was also the first time that child marriage and how to end it were discussed in a Senate plenary session in the Philippines. Following this speech, two Senate committees jointly recommended the early passage of the bill prohibiting child marriage in the Philippines.

According to Rom Dongeto, Executive Director of PLCPD, this is the first time in Philippine history that a proposed law seeking to end child marriage has reached second reading. 

“Child marriage is a human rights violation. It compromises the development and rights of children and women to help in education and to live a life free from poverty abuse and violence.”

“For the first time in history, there are measures filed in Congress that aim to end child marriage. Social movements like the #GirlDefenders alliance play an important role in shaping public policies and have mobilized the citizenry in achieving important policy reforms to end harmful practices ending child marriage.”

In September 2020, Oxfam joined PLCPD, children’s networks, government agencies, women’s rights organizations and international and sectoral organizations to serve as a resource focal during a legislative inquiry in relation to Senate Resolution No. 446, which urges government to integrate a ‘gender lens’ into its COVID-19 programs, given the “disproportionate impact of the pandemic on women and girls.” Oxfam submitted evidence from its projects in Mindanao that there have been increased reports of child marriage in conflict-affected areas in Mindanao.

The ‘Girl Defenders’ alliance includes lawmakers; government agencies and bodies, such as the Commission on Human Rights and Philippine Commission on Women; youth campaigners from Lanao del Sur, Maguindanao, and NCR; and women’s rights organizations. Canada’s new ambassador to the Philippines Peter MacArthur, and Oxfam campaigners from Indonesia and India where similar legislative advocacy measures are being pushed, gave their firm support.

The International Day of the Girl is celebrated annually on October 11, in recognition of the rights and unique challenges girls face all over the world.