CATHOLIC NEWS OF THE WEEK . Saturday, 17 August 2019

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Poverty drives more Filipino women into early marriage

Maricel Kuyog wanted to share her story with someone not from her village. She had the chance when a group of humanitarian workers came for a visit. She took them to her house, which was partially damaged by a typhoon that hit the northern Philippines in 2018.
The house was relatively bigger than the others in the village, but it was dark and empty. The only place that seemed to be in order was the kitchen.
“I love to cook,” said Maricel, who claimed that she learned at a very young age back in a village in Naga on the other end of Luzon island.
She was 13 when she left her village to try her luck in Manila as a housemaid. “I wanted to get away from poverty,” she explained.
She came from a family of farm workers who do not own the land they till. A long time ago her parents gave up on their dream of sending their children to school.
“I thought that if I worked in the city things would change,” Maricel said, adding, “I thought life would be better, but I found myself in a more difficult situation.” 
She had to endure waking up in the small hours to prepare breakfast for her employers. She said she missed home but decided to stay in the place she could not call home.
Life in the city was without colour. One day the young lady met a man who made her blush. “He was a few years older than me,” she said.
Maricel and the man, who worked on a nearby construction site, eventually fell in love. When she turned 15-years-old, they decided to live together in a village in the northern part of Luzon.
Life in the village was simple. Maricel was happy as she and her partner worked on a farm. They enjoyed every moment of living together until she got pregnant at the age of 21.
The child gave the couple “so much joy,” but it also changed everything in their life. Now they have to spend more time on the farm and look for other sources of income to make ends meet.
Maricel never went back to her hometown, lost contact with her own family, and now, after 30 years, with five children of her own, she realises that she is living the life that she once tried to escape. “But don’t get me wrong,” she added, “I am happy with what I have now.”
A 2017 UNICEF study revealed that 15 per cent of Filipino girls are married before their 18th birthday, while two percent are married before the age of 15.
The Philippines has the 12th highest number of child brides in the world at 726,000, while women in some regions in the southern Philippines marry earlier than those in other parts of the country.
Patricia Miranda, policy adviser of global charity Oxfam in the Philippines, said the common drivers of early marriage are poverty, lack of access to education and the exclusion of women from economic opportunities.
“This is aggravated in times of armed conflict and disasters,” she explained. Other drivers include harmful gender stereotypes, power imbalance and inequality, and societal perceptions that women and girls have a lower status than men and boys.
In some regions of the country, early marriage is justified by culture and religion.
In the southern city of Marawi, Marah (not her real name) said she agreed to marry a boy who was chosen by her parents “because it is our tradition and it is accepted in our religion.”
She was only 14-years-old when she got married in 2016. She was already pregnant when the 2017 conflict erupted in the city, displacing about half a million people.
The dowry her husband’s parents gave for the wedding was gone after the war destroyed the small store she set up in her village.
Under Islamic law in the Philippines, early marriage for boys who have reached the age of 15 and for girls who have had their first menstruation is allowed.
Amanah Busran Lao, a Muslim lawyer, said the law was crafted in the 1970s. “It is already obsolete,” she said, noting, “While it allows child marriage, it also violates the rights of the child that are guaranteed by the Philippine constitution.” 
Lao said, however, that religion and culture should not be blamed for child marriage in many parts of the country. “We can amend the law and break tradition, but if we do not address poverty, child or arranged marriages will continue as a practice,” she said.
She noted that many Muslim families think that marrying their children off at a young age will resolve poverty. “It does not. It only worsens the situation,” Lao explained.
Maricel and Marah got married at a young age to break free from poverty. Today, they continue to live in a situation that can only be resolved by social reforms. UCAN