Tradition vs girls’ human rights (1)

COTABATO CITY — Here in the center of the Bangsamoro autonomous government, a group of Muslim members of the Bangsamoro Transition Authority (BTA) or the parliament of the autonomous region passed a resolution pleading that President Duterte “veto” Republic Act 11596, also known as “An Act Prohibiting the Practice of Child Marriage and Imposing Penalties Thereof,” which was signed last Dec. 10, 2021.

The approval of this law was considered a “huge win” for Bangsamoro children. Noraida Abo, executive director of UnYPhil-Women, was among those who lauded its passage. In an interview, Abo said it is about time that early, child, and forced marriages among girls should be ended. She added that this law is a huge step to the goal of children’s and women’s rights advocates to stop “Bangsamoro children having children.” Her candid and sharp remarks run counter to the claim of the group of Muslim leaders who oppose the passage of the law, saying that child marriage is part of Bangsamoro “tradition” or “culture” and that “it is hard to change.”

In supporting their resolution at the BTA, this group of Muslim members of parliament claims that the “…Bangsamoro community does not support this law,“ as stated by Minister Romeo Sema of the region’s Ministry of Labor and Employment.

RA 11596 criminalizes the practice of child, early, and forced marriage, and abolishes traditional practices and “structures that perpetuate discrimination, abuse, and exploitation of children such as the practice of child marriage.” The law also imposes stiff penalties on those who officiate or even cause early or child marriage, like parents and older relatives of both girls and boys.

A 2017 Philippine National Demographic and Health Survey found out that one in six Filipino girls are married before they reach 18, considered the country’s legal age. This puts the Philippines in rank 12th among countries with the highest number of child marriages.

Several international and national advocacy groups promoting the human rights of women and girls, like the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef), Plan International, Save the Children, and other members of the Child Rights Network, welcomed this landmark law. Unicef lauded the passage of this “important law” and reiterated its commitment to ensuring the law’s stringent implementation toward a future of eradicating child marriage and other acts of injustice and violence against children in the country. In a statement the Unicef released recently, it committed to continue being “steadfast in safeguarding other actions including social protection measures, equitable access to education, uninterrupted health services, and empowerment of children and young people.”

Several studies conducted in countries where child marriage is prevalent have shown that child or early marriage can result in generational poverty and lifelong suffering of children who get married early and their children as well. According to Dr. Edwin M.P. Quijano, director of the Commission on Population and Development of Region XII, “child marriage is both a result and a cause of the perpetuation of a cycle of gendered poverty…” Quijano based his remarks on empirical evidence from several studies commissioned by various international donor agencies advocating the human rights of children. Studies show that adolescent mothers between the ages of 15 and 19 are twice as likely to die of pregnancy and childbirth complications compared to women within the ages of 20 to 24. Moreover, children of teenage mothers are twice as likely to die early compared to a child born to a woman in her 20s. If they do survive, they might be malnourished, having lower body weights and may manifest stunting.

Given these facts based on empirical studies, it is surprising why some leaders oppose this law that promotes children’s rights, especially the rights of girl children.

Perhaps we can ask those who advocate continuing the tradition of child marriage in the Bangsamoro this question: If they have a 12-year-old daughter, would they want to marry her off to an older man (as old as they are) just to keep the “tradition”?

(To be continued)

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