Press Release
March 5, 2020

Sponsorship Speech of Senator Risa Hontiveros
Senate Bill 1373 under Committee Report 52, Prohibiting and Declaring Child Marriage as Illegal
March 04, 2020

Let me begin by telling a sad story. Last year, Rappler ran an article about a girl who they chose to call "Fatima." Three days into the new year of 2019, Fatima woke up to what she thought was any other normal day spent doing household chores and taking care of her younger siblings. Little did she know that before the day would end she would be married to a distant cousin 8 years her senior, someone who she didn't know and hasn't met. At 14 years old, she would become a wife to a total stranger. It was her uncle who sealed the marriage and made the arrangements, and no amount of pleading and bargaining by Fatima and her mother who was also a child bride herself could dissuade him to undo the agreement. In justifying this decision, the girl's grandmother, the family matriarch explained that marriage will lighten the burden of her widowed mother, Isha who was left to feed 11 children, some of them were adopted, like Fatima. The small sari-sari store she used to own was destroyed during the Marawi siege, and only the meager income from a small vegetable patch is what keeps them hardly afloat.

We all know this isn't a rare occurrence, Mr. President. According to a UNICEF report, 750 million women and girls alive today were married before they reached their 18th birthday, and 2% of this number got married even before they turned 15 years old. Also, the Philippines with 726,000 child brides is the 12th highest in the world in terms of absolute numbers. In a 2019 survey by the Oxfam-led Improving Availability of Reproductive Health Services in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao or the ARCHES Project, 253 or 24% out of the 1,058 respondents coming from Lanao del Sur, Maguindanao, and the Basulta regions were cases of child marriage, and 97% of them involved girls.

Thirty years ago, the Philippines ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child which clearly sets the minimum age of marriage at 18 years old. Almost a decade earlier, we also became a signatory to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women or CEDAW which obligates states to ensure full, free and informed consent of both parties to the marriage. In many an instance where issues concerning children are being discussed, we always point out to the fact that there are acts that children and young people below the age of 18 are prohibited from doing, among them is being a party to a legal contract which is exactly what establishes the legitimacy of a marriage.

Our usual understanding of the world would point to poverty as the main motivation that drives families to marry off their children at a very young age. Not unlike the case of Fatima whose family was affected by armed conflict, and were further pushed deeper into poverty, many girls like her have suffered the same fate. Internal displacement brought about by armed conflicts and natural disasters have driven impoverished families into greater hardships that many of them seek to somehow be unburdened with mouths to feed, and hope that their young daughters would be better off married to someone who could better care for them.

Poverty may be among the drivers of child marriages, but there is also a more subtle impulse behind this practice. Child marriage, as part of social norms in communities where it is common is often the result of entrenched gender inequality. This gender inequality plays a key role in making girls disproportionately affected by this cultural practice. Female children are falsely seen as contributing less to the household, and is expected to eventually leave to join the family of her husband making them of less value than male children. In a baseline study on violence against women conducted by Oxfam revealed that among the respondents from Maguindanao, social pressure is the main reason why girls enter into marriage early, many of them between the ages of 14 to 17.

Mr. President, in a time when we, together with the rest of the world are slowly making headway in ensuring that young girls are protected and are able to reach their full potential as human beings, the existence of child marriages in our country negates these efforts. Child brides are less likely to remain in school depriving them of economic prospects and other opportunities an education affords. Girls who get married at a very young age are more likely to experience early childbearing, exposing them to higher pregnancy-related complications including childbirth-related deaths.

I would like to direct your attention to this photo of three young girls and two baby boys from the Palaw'on community. To reach their village, one has to travel 5 hours by land from Puerto Princesa in Palawan to the Municipality of Rizal, then another 1 and a half hours from Rizal to the Barangay Proper, and finally, a 4- to 6-hour climb uphill. If you think the baby boys in the care of the two girls are their siblings, I am sad to say that you are mistaken. They are their children.

CHILDREN. HAVING. CHILDREN. All three of these girls, ages 13, 12, and 9 are child brides. Distressful. Heartbreaking. Just by looking at them, one immediately realizes that this practice has to stop.

Medical evidence has also shown that the risk of infant mortality among children of very young mothers is 60% higher than among those born to mothers older than 19. Girls who get married early are also vulnerable to sexually transmitted infections, domestic violence, abuse, and exploitation.

These are but some of the implications arising from child marriages, Mr. President. If we continue to allow this to happen to our children, we are essentially robbing them of their right to a childhood.

It is with this in mind that the Committee on Women, Children, Family Relations and Gender Equality wishes to sponsor Senate Bill 1373 under Committee Report 52 entitled, "Prohibiting and Declaring Child Marriage as Illegal."

This bill considers the act of child marriage a public crime, and penalizes any person who facilitates and solemnizes this union. Being conscious of existing cultural practices, the bill introduces a culturally-appropriate program and services that will be responsive to the needs of those who will be affected by this law. The Department of Social Work and Development shall be the lead duty-bearer in the formulation of such program and services, and in the implementation of the law. Mr. President, I realize that there might be some apprehension that the bill may be intruding into established and long-held cultural practices. In all humility, allow me to say that I fully understand this anxiety. May I invite you to watch a short but heartening video of a young Muslim woman, Hanod Ebrahim who is an unwavering advocate of ending child, early, forced marriage.

As history has time and again demonstrated, any aspect of culture is not static, and neither is it monolithic. Culture can be considered not only as practice but also a process, a consequence of material and non-material conditions, and a bearer of values. As such, culture continues to evolve, to grow with us human beings who are fully aware of present realities and necessities, accepting of new knowledge and belated realizations. And among the learnings that we are duty-bound to acknowledge is that our children are our future, and all that we do must be in their best interest.

Bago po ako magtapos, nais ko lang banggitin ang mga advocates na narito ngayon na walang kapagurang itinataguyod ang pagpasa sa panukalang batas na ito: Oxfam, PLCPD, AMDF, UnyPhil, PBSP, mga taga-Barangay Culiat, World Vision, at Forum for Family Planning.

Maraming salamat, at mabuhay po tayong lahat.

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