To almost universal acclaim, President Duterte signed a law in December 2021 making child marriages—a disturbingly common occurrence in the Philippines–a crime.
The new law imposes stiff penalties on any person who causes, fixes, facilitates or arranges a child marriage, including jail time of six year and a day to 10 years. If the person is an ascendant, parent, adoptive parent, step parent or guardian of the child, the prison time goes up to 10 years and a day to 12 years.
Anyone who performs or officiates a child marriage and an adult partner who cohabits with a child outside of wedlock will suffer similarly harsh penalties.
UNICEF Philippines called the “Prohibition of Child Marriage Law” a major milestone in child rights and addresses a serious social problem.
The 2017 Philippine National Demographic and Health Survey shows that one in six Filipino girls is married before she is 18 or the legal age of majority. The phenomenon of child marriage has been practiced in indigenous and Muslim communities in the country. Globally, the Philippines ranks 12th in the absolute number of child marriages. UNICEF notes that while community-based programs seek to address this problem, a law that strengthens the legal framework and protection for young children underscores the commitment of the state to fully implement the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.
This commitment has real-world consequences.
“Child marriage is a human rights violation that can result in a lifetime of suffering not just for young girls but for their children as well,” UNICEF notes. “Girls who marry before turning 18 are less likely to remain in school and more likely to experience domestic violence and abuse. Compared to women in their 20s, they are also more likely to die due to complications in pregnancy and childbirth. If they survive pregnancy and childbirth, the likelihood of their infants to be stillborn or die in the first month of life is quite high.”
Against this backdrop, it was disheartening to learn that an appointed member of the Bangsamoro parliament spoke out against this law that she said “goes to the very heart of our practice and our faith.”
In a privilege speech delivered this month, Anna Tarhata Basman argued the law goes against the autonomy that the Bangsamoro region enjoys as well as religious freedom.
First, she said the law not only discourages but penalizes “those who intend to take the more responsible route of marriage of other non-marital relations.” This, she said, sends a message to the young to do what they want “according to what is natural” – just don’t get married. “While this is acceptable for some, it is not for others, particularly the Muslims.”
Second, she said the law presumes the lack of consent purely based on the age of the bride. The law, she says, makes a 15-year-old responsible for his or her criminal acts but does not make the same assumption for marriage.
Third, she says, the law presumes the worst about parents in such unions and readily and easily attribute child abuse to them. While she acknowledges that there are parents who force their children into marriage, the law makes a blanket imputation of ill-will upon the parents of the marrying party.
Finally, she asks what happens to the children born within such marriages. While they would be protected and have rights as legitimate children under Islamic law and earlier Philippine laws, the new law, she says, will consider them illegitimate.
Of course, these concerns should have been raised while Congress debated the law, not after the law has been passed. Still, it is ludicrous to say the law encourages the young to be sexually promiscuous outside of marriage. Arranged marriages do not happen because a girl as young as 14 or a boy of 15 wants to have sex. Arranged marriages aren’t about doing “what is natural.”
It is also illogical to say that we should accept the “consent” of a 14-year-old girl to a marriage she knows nothing about, simply because a 15-year-old can be held liable for a crime. Marriage is not a crime—child marriage is.
Furthermore, it is irrelevant to argue that there is a blanket imputation of ill will. Motivation is not punished by law, an act is. We do not say it is all right to murder someone because your intentions were good.
Finally, laws cannot be retroactively applied—and children already born of such child marriages cannot be penalized.
Addressing similar complaints, the Commission on Human Rights reminded some members of the Bangsamoro Transition Authority that the law went through rigorous deliberations and consultations with religious leaders and communities, especially with women and girls in Muslim and indigenous communities. Many representatives from their communities have already attested to the urgency of the law, it said.
“The claim then that this law lacks support from the Bangsamoro community couldn’t be further from the truth,” the commission continued. “They can only come from individuals who refuse to acknowledge and discount the critical participation of women and girls and who continue to cling to harmful practices even as they violate basic human rights.”
Child marriages are an avenue for abuse and consign young girls to misery and slave conditions. Nothing—not tradition nor the misapplication of religious norms—can justify that.