Rohainie Sahari was busy attending to her online class when a distant relative visited her parents.
“Although both were talking in whispers, I could hear my mom saying, let’s just ask her if she is willing. I will talk to her,” said 20-year-old Rohainie.
Rohainie was shocked to learn that the relative was proposing an arranged marriage between her and the aunt’s son.
If things went according to plan, Rohainie would be married before the fasting month of Ramadan.
Uncomfortable and anxious, she struggled to stay silent as she continued to eavesdrop.
“I was annoyed and distracted. It was hard trying to focus on studying for an upcoming exam,” Rohainie said.
After the visitor left, she begged her mother to say no to the arranged marriage. She wanted to finish her studies first, she politely told her parents.
Fortunately for Rohaine, her mother Rocaya respected her and her right to decide for herself.
According to Roconsalam Amer, president of a women’s organization in Lanao del Sur, arranged marriages have long been a tradition among Maranaos.
Marriage between relatives is preferred since it is assumed that it helps tighten relationships among clans and that it can prevent feuds and misunderstandings between erstwhile warring clans, explained Roconsalam who is a leader of the Women’s Association on Turmeric Production, a project supported by Oxfam Pilipinas and other non-profit organizations promoting women empowerment in the region.
Nowadays, arranged marriages are practiced to also escape poverty, or protect political interests, to keep dignity (Maratabat) and to avoid premarital sex, she said.
According to locals like Roconsalam, a number of brides are non-consenting girls who are forced into marrying men they have never met and are often multiple times older than them. Some have not even reached puberty or had their first menstruation.
In a way, Rohainie was fortunate that her mother listened to her. She feared having the same fate as her 13-year-old relative and neighbor who was forced to marry a 30-year-old man. The girl then became ill and died after just six months.
Rohainie suspected that the girl had a miscarriage. “Her body was not ready to handle mother’s task at a very young and tender age,” Rohainie said.
Today, besides being a political science student at Mindanao State University-Marawi (MSU), Rohainie has also become a Maranao youth leader. She is part of Linding Kokalombayan, a group of young women in Lanao Del Sur province and Marawi City campaigning against child, early and forced marriages in BARMM. The group, a youth partner of Al-Mujadilah Women’s Association (AMWA), is part of the Creating Spaces project, which aims to reduce the prevalence of child, early and forced marriages.
Funded by the Government of Canada through the Global Affairs Canada, this five-year project of Creating Spaces to Take Action on Violence against Women and Girls is implemented by Oxfam Pilipinas, AMWA, United Youth of the Philippines – Women, in partnership with the Philippine Legislators’ Committee on Population and Development (PLCPD) and the Philippine Business for Social Progress (PBSP).
Through the project, Rohainie and other “girl defenders” engage with key Muslim religious leaders (MRLs), community, private sector, and political influencers, as well as their fellow youth, in advancing women’s leadership and rights and helping prevent violence against women and girls including child, early, and forced marriages (CEFM).
Members of the youth group conduct house-to-house conversations with families in the community to talk about gender-based violence and CEFM.
Joining Rohainie in the campaign is 20-year-old Nadia Abdullah, also an education student at MSU.
Though a full-blooded Maranao, she grew up in Christian-dominated communities in Leyte and Cebu where her parents did business.
She was devastated to learn the fate of her best friend, a fellow Maranao named *Liyah (not her real name) who became a child bride.
Nadia and Liyah became best friends while studying in Cebu. When 14-year-old Liyah went home to Marawi, she was forced to marry a man who was already in his mid-twenties.
“We had a conversation, she was in tears, she did not want it — she had no choice,” Nadia recalled. “Her parents granted permission for an arranged marriage, to help ease the economic burden of the family.”
Nadia said this is the reason why she is now active in promoting the welfare of young girls and teenagers.
Liyah is now separated from her husband, who was also said to have physically abused a former wife.
But it’s not only women who are pushing back, several young men are also supporting the advocacy on the prevention of CEFM.
“Definitely we are breaking barriers. I think there is cultural misinterpretation. A lot of women and girls were deprived of their rights to choose,” said 19-year-old Jamal Pandapatan, a social work student at MSU and one of the male members of the Linding Youth organization.
“Forcing young girls into early marriage will affect their reproductive and mental health. They are not yet old enough to make these decisions,” said Abdul Hakim Mohamad, who is also an MSU-Marawi and member of the youth group.
“We forget to understand also the reality that while we aim to prevent Zina or premarital sex, by pushing them into early marriage, we are also committing sins because there was no consent from them and it is forbidden in our belief,” Mohamad said.
According to Girls Not Brides, more than 800,000 Filipinas were married before they were 18 years old, making the Philippines the 10th among countries with the most number of child marriages.
“Taking Space: A Snapshot of Child, Early, and Forced Marriage – Insights from Oxfam and partners’ work in the Philippines” released in 2020 showed that 24% of 1,058 survey respondents from Lanao del Sur, Maguindanao, Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi were married before the age of 18. Of those who married as minors, child marriage disproportionately affected girls at 97 percent.
The study also showed that many adolescent brides experience health risks caused by frequently repeated pregnancies even before they become physically and psychologically ready for responsible motherhood and childbirth. Also, in many cases, girls drop out of school because of child marriage, pregnancy, and domestic chores.
As groups within the Girl Defenders alliance and Creating Spaces project grapple with the intricacies of norms, culture, religion and tradition, they are in constant dialogue with lawmakers and government agencies that would play important parts in truly banning child marriage in the Philippines.
A bill addressing the legal loopholes allowing child marriage in Muslim communities has already passed the two chambers of Congress. The alliance hopes that it will be enacted into law before next year’s elections.
In the meantime, young women like Rohainie have to deal with family and societal pressures of early and arranged marriage.
Rohainie said that because of her refusal, her relationship with her aunt and other relatives has turned sour. She fears that family ties will continue to erode.
But she has no regrets. She is instead praying that someday her relatives will be enlightened and understand that she made the right decision. In the meantime, Rohainie is using the time she has now to pursue her dreams to become a lawyer.
She hopes that through their group’s work, they will be able to change not only their members’ lives but also that of the next generation. ###