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Lanao del Sur, Philippines - “In Bangsamoro, children are often married off very early. My mom was just 4 years old when she got engaged.  My cousin was 8 years old,” said Sam Guro, 30, Local Youth Development Officer at the Municipality of Mulondo, Lanao del Sur, Mindanao.           

“You see some girls married off at the age even below 15.  But girls at such an age should be studying at school and enjoying their own adolescence, and not worrying about their husbands or their children.” Sam has grown up seeing her classmates married early and drop out from school to work at home.“ “I was lucky,” she continued.  “I myself too got almost engaged when I was still in elementary school, but the marriage did not push through as my parents were firm believers that education is the ‘weapon’ to succeed in life, and they wanted me to finish my studies first.”

1 in 7 Filipino girls marry before 18

Child marriage, defined as marriage before the age of 18 years, is considered a violation of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which the Philippines ratified in 1990.   The country’s own Family Code also sets the marriageable age at 18 years.  And yet, 15% of young women aged 20-24 married before they became 18 (UNICEF, 2017).  Indeed, a recent report by UNFPA Asia-Pacific Regional Office (2019) that compared data from various Asian countries from 1970 to 2010 revealed that the Philippines has shown very little change in the percentage of women who were married at the ages 15 to 19, while countries like Republic of Korea, Indonesia and India reduced that percentage to less than half during the last 50 years.          

While boys are affected by child marriage too, the issue impacts girls’ lives far more intensely as manifested often in poorer health and education outcomes, reduced employability, and higher risks to abuse and violence.  “Child marriage is both a result and a cause of the perpetuation of a cycle of gendered poverty,” pointed out Dr. Edwin M.P. Quijano, Director of the Commission on Population and Development (POPCOM) of Region XII. Many of adolescent brides are exposed to early and frequently repeated pregnancies and childbirth before they become physically mature and psychologically ready for responsible motherhood. Evidence shows that adolescent mothers between the ages of 15 and 19 are twice as likely to die of pregnancy and childbirth complications as women between the ages of 20 and 24. The children of teen mothers too are twice as likely to die as a child of a woman in her 20s.  Even when they survive, many of them have lower weight and stunting.  In many cases, the greatest obstacles to girls’ education are child marriage, pregnancy and domestic chores, as they drop out from school and lose vocational chances.  In addition, child brides are more likely to experience domestic violence. “Child marriage carries lifelong consequences and plays a significant role in the transmission of poverty from one generation to the next. It not only  affects the girl and her household, but the overall development of the community and the whole country,” said Dr. Quijano.           

The Code of Muslim Personal Laws sets a lower age for marriage – 15 years old for male and 12 years old for females as long as she has attained puberty. “Child marriage seems more accepted in the culture in our community, compared to other parts of the country,” Sam told UNFPA.   Frequent  conflicts and disasters in the region also seem to play a part. During the Marawi siege crisis in 2017,  31% of the people in the evacuation sites responded to a survey by a NGO, Plan International, that  child and forced marriage is  the most common form of sexual violence . The protracted displacement in the Bangsamoro region has resulted in a number of child marriage cases, as it appears to be one of the coping mechanisms of the families temporarily sheltering at  evacuation centers, due to economic instability, fear of violence, and a felt need to maintain ‘family honor’.    

Sam Guro (second from left) and other team members presenting their
‘Panginam’ project during the Innovation Fora held in Cotabato in
August 2019. © UNFPA Philippines

Giving ‘Hope’ to  girls

As an attempt at  curbing this trend, Sam  and four other young girls from Mulondo, a municipality in Lanao del Sur, 20 km south of Marawi City, initiated the Panginam project.  ‘Panginam’  means hope in Maranao.  The youth-led initiative is providing livelihood opportunities, life skills and psychological support to young Maranao couples who are at risk of child marriage or already involved in such relationship, with the technical and financial assistance of UNFPA Philippines.     

“By enhancing knowledge about the risks and consequences, we are hoping that the project can contribute to decreasing child marriage and teenage pregnancy among the young couples in our community, and also for the couples to discourage their children to marry and conceive early in future.  Then we can break the cycle of poverty in future generations.  We give them hope for future.  That is our hope,” Sam explained her youthful team’s motivation.

This initiative is a component of the “Integrated SDGs Solutions Platform for the Bangsamoro Youth” project,  implemented by UNFPA jointly with UNDP and  ILO,  to empower the  young people in Lanao del Sur to come up with and carry out  innovative solutions  that will make a just and lasting peace in Mindanao a reality.​ The Sustainable Development Goals agreed on unanimously by all UN Member States have a clear target for eliminating child, early and forced marriage by 2030. “When choosing a social issue in our community that is related to Agenda 2030 including  the SDGs, we immediately thought of early marriage. This is a very personal problem for me not only because  I have cousins and friends who got married early, but my own parents too are the product of child marriage and being their eldest child, I saw the struggle that they faced,” Sam share with  UNFPA.

25 years ago in 1994, in the International Conference on Population and Development, 179 Member States agreed that      sexual and reproductive health is a right and women and girls should be able to choose whether and how often to become pregnant. “During our training, I emphasize that it is very important to give girls the right to plan their family and that girls will face serious health, education and employability related  consequences if they conceive early,” added Sam. 

UNFPA multi-sectoral approach for ending child marriage

 UNFPA Philippines support to Sam’s ‘Panginam’ project is  a part of a broader, multi-sectoral approach  to accelerate  efforts to end  child marriage. UNFPA has also provided technical assistance to the Department of Health and POPCOM Region XII  in the development of  a Fatwa (a legal opinion on a point of Islamic law) on Model Family in Islam. “The Fatwa on Model Family in Islam discourages early marriages. Also, this Fatwa is being integrated in the Comprehensive Gender and Health Education for Youth in the BARMM,” affirmed Dr. Quijano. POPCOM is currently working with religious leaders and other elders for popularization of this Fatwa in barangays across the newly established BARMM.    

UNFPA is advocating with the newly established Bangsamoro Transition Authority (BTA) for the inclusion of the Gender and Development Code (GAD) and for the increase of the age of legal consent to marriage, which is currently 12 years old.  And at the national level, UNFPA supports  the passage of the House Bill No 8440 to ‘Criminalize Child Marriage in the Philippines’, which  if enacted into law will penalize solemnizing officers and parents who arranged and consented to a child marriage.    

UNFPA is also planning to collaborate with NGO to unearth essential data to provide a more accurate picture of the child marriage situation in the country.  “But even one case of child marriage is one too many.  There should be no child bride,” said Sittie Rajabia Monato, UNFPA Gender Based Violence (GBV) Coordinator in Mindanao.   

On the International Day of the Girl Child 2019, Sam feels her passion and sense of commitment toward girl empowerment growing even bigger. “I believe that everyone deserves a happy childhood and adolescence.  Every girl should have enjoy the right to education, equal opportunities, and most importantly, the right to control her own body and the right to decide when to get married and to ultimately achieve her dreams.  And I will not stop until I see all the girls in my community do that.”      

- Camilla Caron