Defined as formal or informal (cohabitation) marriages of girls and boys before they turn 18, child and early marriages (CEM) are considered harmful practices because child brides are often denied their basic human rights to health, education and protection. Physically and emotionally, child brides are not ready to assume the roles of wives and mothers. They are also at risks of dying from pregnancy and childbirth complications, and experiencing domestic violence and poverty.

The United Nations Children’s Fund (2017) reported that 15 percent of Filipino girls get married before they turn 18 while 2 percent marry before reaching 15. The total number of child brides is 726,000.  Mimaropa, Soccsksargen and BARMM were identified as the three regions with the highest number of child brides.

Mimaropa groups Mindoro Occidental, Mindoro Oriental, Marinduque, Romblon and Palawan; South Cotabato, Cotabato, Sultan Kudarat, Sarangani and General Santos City compose Soccsksargen; and BARMM is the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao.

To obtain a better understanding about CEM in BARMM, a qualitative formative study on social and gender norms, reproductive health, marriage and pregnancy was conducted in August 2020, among Bangsamoro men, women and adolescents and youth (ages 15 to 24) under the auspices of the University Research Co. (URC), a USAid Implementing Partner.  Maguindanao, Lanao del Sur and Basilan were the research areas. By observing Covid-19 protection protocols, the research teams were able to conduct face-to-face focus group discussions with 355 respondents who were mostly Moros; a few were Christians and Indigenous People (IP).

The study found that most of the women and men respondents got married before turning 18. Christians married early to escape from financial difficulties or because of unplanned pregnancy. Moro women and men agreed to marry because of tradition. The tradition that the Moro respondents were referring to is the 43-year-old Code of Muslim Personal Laws (CMPL) or the 1977 Presidential Decree 1089 that most Muslims follow. The CMPL outlines the laws on marriage and divorce, family relations and other personal laws. The law allows girls 12 to 15 years old to marry if they are already in the puberty stage. On certain conditions, it also permits betrothal of girls below 12 years old.

Some women claimed that early marriage was their destiny. Moro men added that early marriage saved them from committing sin or fitna.  All married respondents regretted that they married early. The women would not like their daughters to have the same experience.  The men said they were unable to fulfill their dreams and plans. They also cited difficulties experienced by their sisters and cousins who married early. Adolescents and youth were torn between fulfilling their dreams and conforming to the early and arranged marriage tradition. If their parents decide to marry them off, they will ultimately follow their parents’ decision.

All women, adolescents and youth did not approve of CEM, but they knew that this is happening in their families and communities. It was perceived that this practice has positive outcomes for it strengthens the ties between families and clans.

High poverty in the region (68.8 percent in 2018) is a major factor that places girls and women at a greater disadvantage. Among the IP respondents, early and arranged marriage is rampant because poor families marry off their daughters in exchange for dowries.  The other respondents said families send their daughters to other households where they could be cared for by well-off husbands. A few rich families, however, are reportedly engaged in this practice because they want to strengthen their influence and power with other wealthy families.

The study indicates that CEM is not acceptable among those who experienced early marriages. Some actions are currently taking place in the region and at the national level to prevent CEM.  For example, in Mulondo municipality in Lanao del Sur, a group of young Maranao women who experienced difficulties from their parents’ early marriage, initiated the Panginam (hope) project. With technical and financial assistance from the United Mations Population Fund, this youth-led initiative provides livelihood opportunities, life skills and psychological support to young Maranao couples who are at risk of child marriage or are already in such relationships.

At the national level, Senate Bill 1373, titled “Girls Not Brides Act,” was unanimously voted on its third and final reading by the senators on Nov. 9, 2020.  The bill forbids marriage between minors (boys and girls below 18) or between a minor and an adult. The bill also states that anyone who initiates, fixes, expedites and organizes the child marriage shall be fined at least P40,000 and imprisoned between 8 and 10 years.  This legislation cannot be enacted because the counterpart House Bill 8440 in the lower chamber is yet to be passed. This bill and the President’s concurrence are essential before the Girls Not Brides Act becomes a law.

At present, there are two different laws about marriage in the country — the Family Code (Executive Order 209) and the CMPL. The Family Code requires that both contracting parties should be 18 years old. If one party was below 18, the marriage would be void even if the parents or guardians gave their consent.  In BARMM, however, the CMPL supersedes the Family Code.

If the Girls Not Brides Act was passed, would the CMPL supersede it? Will the BARMM Parliament uphold it, or craft a new gender- and culture-sensitive law on CEM? I wonder.

Indonesia, which is predominantly populated by Muslims, has raised women’s age for marriage in 2019 from 16 to 19 to curb child brides.