Sittie Mohamad of Al-Mujadilah Development Foundation, a women’s rights organization campaigning to end child marriage in the Philippines

Girls Not Brides – weaving the ‘evidence quilt’ for gender transformative law reform

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Gender, Rights, Violence Against Women and Girls

 “The strength of my resolve to champion the rights of young women and girls is far greater than any fear of challenging long-held cultural practices or beliefs. If we will not stand up for our human rights, who else will?”, said campaigner Sittie Mohamad of Al-Mujadilah Development Foundation, a women’s rights organization based in Lanao del Sur campaigning to end child marriage in the Philippines. (Photo was taken in March 2020, before the Covid-19 lockdown) Photo Credit: Vina Salazar/Oxfam 

Positive prospects amid the pandemic 

Girls have been given much reason to hope in the Philippines. This November, a historic first, the Senate unanimously approved the Girls Not Brides bill, which proposes to criminalize child marriage. Now the House of Representatives must take this life-saving measure across the finish line before the last step – a presidential veto or approval.  

There are an estimated 726,000 child brides in the Philippines, making it the 12th highest in the world for child marriage in terms of absolute numbers. According to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), 1 in 6 girls in the Philippines will get married before turning 18. Of that number, over a quarter experiencing domestic violence and abuse

Once the Girls Not Brides bill becomes law, it establishes a minimum age of marriage. Perpetrators who participate and perform child marriage will face punishment, including fines, loss of child custody, and prison. This law, supported by education and child protection programs, will safeguard hundreds of thousands of girls and boys from being forced into marriage and give children full and equal legal protection against abuse, wherever they may be in the country.  

The proposed law has a considerable legal punch. Once child marriage is prohibited and becomes a public crime, the government must bring perpetrators directly to trial. This is the case even when no formal complaint has been filed; or when a case is withdrawn by a survivor due to family or community pressure tactics, such as emotional blackmail, stigma, and violence. 

Senator Risa Hontiveros, who championed the Girls Not Brides bill, said: 

“I hope that through this bill, Filipinos, particularly those in communities where child marriage is a norm, can recognize that it is not an antidote to poverty, nor is it the only, inevitable path for girls.  

Just because child marriage has been embedded in long-held practices and beliefs does not make it right. And certainly, it does not mean this cannot be changed.” 

Senator Risa Hontiveros

How change happens – weaving the ‘evidence quilt’

To help accelerate change, a body of evidence made up of gender transformative research was submitted to Congress to support the bill as it went through several stages of debate and approval. Creating the evidence base was a collective effort. Oxfam Philippines worked with implementing partners from two projects  Creating Spaces To Take Action Against Violence Against Women and Girls and Sexual Health and Empowerment

Collecting and collating evidence was tough, taking place during a time described as one of the “strictest and hardest Covid-19 lockdowns in the world.” What drove us was the knowledge that the bill had never gone further since first filed in 2017.  

We submitted a key piece of evidence, a recent study by Oxfam and Creating Spaces and SHE project partners: Intersecting Injustices. This research, conducted in BARMM and Caraga, explored the belief systems and other factors that drive child, early, and forced marriage (CEFM) and limit women and girls access to sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) services and information. In these regions, violence against women and girls is compounded by conflict; with many interacting forms of discrimination and oppression based on gender, age, socio-economic class, and religion. 

Two key shared beliefs of parents and health service providers in the region are that unmarried, sexually active adolescent girls and boys are immoral, and that sex is taboo. Such beliefs limit women and girls’ access to SRHR information and services, leading to unplanned pregnancies and CEFM as a route to restoring the perceived dignity of pregnant girls and family honor. Norms around ideal men as strong providers and decision-makers and women as submissive and nurturing child-bearers affect women’s say in their decision making. Decisions around: the number and spacing of children, control over their bodies, and access to SRHR information and services.  

Other salient pieces of the research evidence ‘quilt’ submitted to both Houses of Congress, included:  

Critically, the findings were the basis for context-specific, realistic, and evidence-based solutions, many of which became part of the Girls Not Brides bill or were explicitly referred to or presented during Senate plenary sessions. These solutions were informed by power mapping, which gave insights into the type of evidence lawmakers and policy decision-makers would need to respond to problems experienced by affected communities, and consultative policy advocacy workshops led by our partner Philippine Legislators’ Committee on Population and Development. 

We created one simple argument for lawmakers and citizens unaware of the issue: child marriage is a grave violation of human rights and a serious national public health issue. Our framing conveyed urgency, supporting recent reports by women’s rights organizations that child marriage occurred in evacuation centres while conflict-affected communities were under government-imposed lockdowns.  

Building movements for change  

Creating transformative change requires more than ensuring grounded research reaches lawmakers. The Creating Spaces network and campaigners formed the #GirlDefenders Alliance and have worked tirelessly to build and strengthen an inclusive movement of affected youth, champion legislators, local leaders. This has created a nationwide campaign, with young people directly championing the call to end child marriage. Young feminist activists, such as MAYA Against CEFM in Maguindanao and Lindig Ko Kalombayan in Lanao del Sur, use social media to broadcast their experiences and offer real-time learning to accelerate the passage of the bill. 

The experience of the Philippines shows that gender transformative research can become a powerful catalyst for policy change. But it must be combined with sustained grassroots campaigning, media engagement, political mobilization, and direct interaction and partnerships with decision-makers and influencers who are gender justice champions in the country. Radical impact at scale, in this case, will be the legal protection for millions of children, a critical step to preventing child marriage.  


Oxfam would like to thank the #GirlDefenders Alliance and partners from Creating Spaces to Take Action on Violence Against Women and Girls Project, who have fearlessly led the way forward in this legislative advocacy campaign to end child marriage in the Philippines. We would also like to acknowledge the support of the Sexual Health and Empowerment Project, and its network of partners who have been campaigning for the recognition of sexual and reproductive health information and services as essential to the Covid-19 emergency response. We have learned, and continue to learn, so much from and with all of you. 

Author
Patricia Miranda

Patricia Miranda

Patty is the Head of Policy Advocacy and Communications of Oxfam in the Philippines, where she drives country programme thinking on feminist influencing through advocacy and campaigns, policy research, and communications. Her Team leads in linking country-level campaigns to regional and global influencing efforts to shape discourses around inequalities, gender justice, and resilience, and the priority themes within these identified areas of work in contexts disproportionately affected natural hazards and protracted crises associated with fragility and conflict.

Author
Anam Parvez Butt

Anam Parvez Butt

Anam is a Gender Justice Research Lead and Policy Advisor in the evidence team at Oxfam GB where she provides intellectual leadership on research, policy influencing and data analysis on gender justice and women’s rights to inform global campaigns and programmes. She also leads on building Oxfam’s capacity to deliver gender transformative research and mainstream a critical gender perspective in all research and policy. In particular, the focus areas of her research include social norms, ending violence against women and girls (eVAWG), women’s participation and transformative leadership and feminist macroeconomics.

Author
Jeanette Dulawan

Jeanette Dulawan

Jeanette is the Gender Advisor of Oxfam Philippines, where she provides strategic leadership for gender justice stand-alone programming and gender mainstreaming, ensuring that this reflected in the country programme, influencing and campaigns, partnership, as well as in humanitarian and other direct delivery programming. She influences, guides, and provides gender justice and feminist related technical support in all stages of program designing, implementation, and MELSA in line with Oxfam’s global programme standards, best practices and program quality strategy and works collaboratively with programme and project leads, and unit managers to strengthen and sustain Oxfam’s impact in the areas of gender justice, transformative leadership for women’s rights, transforming norms harmful to women and girls, and the prevention of and elimination of gender-based violence.