Eliminating child, early and forced marriages

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Violence against Women and Girls is one of the most systematic and widespread human-rights violations. One of the expressions of VAWG is child, early and forced marriages (CEFM). According to the 2016 State of the World’s Population Report of UNFPA, 47,000 girls around the world are married before the age of 18 every day. In developing countries, such as the Philippines, 1 in 4 girls will be married before they are 18. In the Philippines, 15 percent of women aged 20 to 24 years old were first married or in union before 18 (NDHS 2013). This has prompted the filing of Senate Bill 162 (by Sen. Risa Hontiveros) House Bill 1486 (by Rep. Bernadette Herrera-Dy and Rep. Edcel Lagman) and House Bill 3899 (by Rep. Alfred Vargas).

The issue of CEFM has been addressed in numerous international conventions and agreements. For instance, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women states that “the betrothal and the marriage of a child shall have no legal effect, and all necessary action, including legislation, shall be taken to specify a minimum age of marriage.” The Philippines’s signing and subsequent ratification of Cedaw underlines its commitment to the country’s women and girls.

A 2017 United Nations Children’s Fund report discloses that the Philippines has the 12th highest absolute number of child brides around the world, which is estimated at 726,000. Some of these brides were discovered to have entered marriage through commercial sex and sex trafficking, as well as the infamous mail-order bride industry. The intergenerational nature of poverty exacerbates the problem of child marriage and renders it necessary for these problems to be addressed at its roots (Explanatory Note SB 162).

Child marriage is an act of child abuse as it debases, degrades and demeans the intrinsic worth and dignity of children under Republic Act (RA) 7610 or the “Special Protection of Children Against Child Abuse, and Exploitation and Discrimination Act.” It is, likewise, considered discrimination relating to marriage and family relations sought to be eliminated by Cedaw.

The pending bills on CEFM seek to eliminate child marriage to strictly enforce Articles 2 to 5 of the Family Code providing that marriage is entered into only with the free and full consent of intending spouses who should be at least 18 years of age at the time of marriage. As defined in the pending bills:

a)            Children—refers to persons below 18 years of age, or those unable to fully take care of themselves or protect themselves from abuse, exploitation or discrimination because of a physical or mental disability or condition as defined by RA 7610.

b)            Child Abuse—refers to any act by deeds or words which debases, degrades or demeans the intrinsic worth and dignity of a child as a human being; or any circumstance which gravely threatens or endangers the life, survival, safety and normal development of children.

c)            Child Marriage—any marriage entered into where one or both parties are below 18 years of age or unable to fully take care or protect themselves because of a physical or mental disability or condition, solemnized in civil, church or in any recognized traditional, cultural or customary manner.

d)            Solemnizing Officer—any person authorized by law as defined in Article 7 of the Family Code or recognized by reason of religion, tradition, culture or customs, to solemnize marriage.

e)            Parents and Guardians—refer to biological parents or those legally adopting parents. Guardians refer to relatives taking custody of the child or minor in the absence of the parents; or anyone to whom a child or minor was given or left for care or custody.

f)             Facilitation of child marriage—the person who caused, fixed, facilitated or arranged the child marriage shall be considered to have committed abuse of the child under RA 7610.

g)            Solemnization of child marriage—the person who officiated and performed the formal rites of child marriage shall be considered to have committed abuse of the child under RA 7610.

Under the CEFM pending bills, the prohibited act of child marriage, its facilitation and solemnization, are considered public crimes. These acts are a grave form of child abuse and exploitation as they gravely threaten and endanger the survival and normal development of children physically, emotionally and psychologically, and can be initiated by any concerned individual. Penalties for violators include fine of P25,000 to P50,000 and/or imprisonment as provided for in RA 7610.

Child Marriage is considered as void ab initio, hence, the action for annulment of child marriage does not prescribe as provided by Article 39 of the Family Code. The legal effect of Child Marriage insofar as Support, Property Relations and Custody shall be governed by Article 50-55 of the Family Code. A child-party to a child marriage shall be given protective custody. The court may, likewise, issue a protection order to protect her from the facilitators of child marriage, which may include her parents or legal guardians.

There shall be a comprehensive care and welfare program to be formulated by the Department of Social Welfare and Development in coordination with other government agencies identified as duty-bearers and with the concerned CSOs and NGOs. This shall be made and initiated by the DSWD within six months from the effectivity of the law. The said program shall be culturally sensitive and shall take into account the specific needs of children of indigenous cultural communities and children in Muslim communities.

A World Bank research has stated that ending CEFM by 2030 would gain $500 billion annually from lower population growth, $90 billion annually from lower under-five mortality and will save 5 percent of governments’ budget for education. Moreover, a Unicef study (2016) shows that girls who are victims of CEFM will most likely drop out of school and lose the chance to be educated and gain skills and knowledge, which will help them gain a good job.

These social and economic impacts should jolt out government and legislators into giving priority to the passage of the CEFM bills!

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