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 This is the case even when no formal complaint has been filed; or when a case is withdrawn by a survivor due to family or community pressure tactics, such as emotional blackmail, stigma, and violence.
“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:
For the Creating Spaces Project:
Philippine Legislators’ Committee on Population and Development (PLCPD), Philippine Business for Social Progress, and partners in the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, Al-Mujadilah Development Foundation based in Lanao del Sur and United Youth of the Philippines-Women based in Maguindanao.
For the SHE Project:
AMDF, UnYPhil-Women, Mayon Integrated Development Alternatives and Services (MIDAS), Family Planning Organization of the Philippines (FPOP), Pambansang Koalisyon ng Kababaihan sa Kanayunan (PKKK), Sibog Katawhan Alang sa Paglambo (SIKAP), University of the Philippines Women and Gender Studies (UPCWGS), Women’s Global Network for Reproductive Rights (WGNRR), Davao Medical School Foundation-Institute of Primary Health Care (DMSF-IPHC), FriendlyCare Foundation, and Jhpiego.
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:
- The narratives of women’s rights activists, advocates, and campaigners show a deep awareness of issues around child marriage as it may have been a lived experience within their own families and communities, and they are powerful changemakers precisely because they know their contexts and culture best.
- Oxfam’s analysis of the gendered impacts of the Covid-19 crisis, including the finding that gender-based violence was the most frequently identified fear during the lockdown, and that there was concern over the lack of adequate reporting or referral systems.
- Oxfam’s project learning reports, particularly in Mindanao, that recommend the importance of intersectional approaches when co-designing interventions to address violence against women and girls in the Philippines with affected communities.
- Statements of support and additional legal bases from government agencies and bodies acting within their mandates, such as the Bangsamoro Women’s Commission and the Commission on Human Rights.
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.