Right to be a girl: Ending child marriage in Asia Pacific

With the first Girl Summit taking place today in London, UK, I am thinking of child brides here in East Asia and the Pacific, where one in five women were married before the age of 18. Most of these girls come from rural areas and from the poorest families.

When I was with UNICEF Philippines, I remember travelling to a village in the south. I passed by a wake where four very young children were wailing beside a makeshift coffin. I stopped by to pay my respects and it was only when I signed the condolence book that I learnt that the deceased mother was only 16 years old.

She had her first child when she was barely 12 and after that had a baby almost every year. I was told that many other girls in that village were “married” at around that age. The community was governed by a special civil law which allowed girls to be married at the age of 12.

The law was passed in the 1977 to allow the Muslim Filipinos in the south to practise their culture and traditions, especially in family matters. The Convention on the Rights of the Child recognises the importance of traditions and cultural values but where these violate children’s rights, they need to be challenged.

Child marriage deprives children of their childhood, their right to education, to health, to protection and hampers their chances to develop to their fullest potential. The practice can be especially harmful to girls as early pregnancy endangers their health and lives.

Poverty contributes to the prevalence of child marriage in our region but there are other critical factors, such as low educational attainment among parents and lack of access to education for their children. Importantly, social norms often rooted in cultural and religious beliefs and practices tend to sustain the practice of child marriage.

To address these multiple causes, UNICEF works with governments and civil society to change the laws, on the one hand, and social norms and practices, on the other. This was the case in the Philippines, where UNICEF advocated for a legal reform to end child marriage, in accordance with international human rights law. In 2008, the Government enacted a ‘Magna Carta of Women’s Rights’, which included the amendment or abolition of any laws not consistent with international human rights conventions, importantly including child marriage.

 

 Child marriage violates girls’ right to a childhood.
Here a Muslim girl performs in a school in Mindanao, Philippines
© UNICEF/2004/Baluyut

 

But legal reform can only be effective if people who are supposed to implement it, and act in accordance with it, understand the reasons behind it. This is all the more true in places like the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), where personal and family issues are treated in accordance with Muslim Sharia law.

There, child marriage and teenage pregnancy are the primary cause of maternal mortality, with the highest rates in the country. To tackle this, we worked closely with Sharia lawyers, religious leaders and medical experts to raise awareness of the harmful impact of child marriage on children.

These efforts resulted in the passing of the ‘Gender and Development Code’ for the ARMM. The Code contains provisions to ensure that imams inquire about the age and consent of the bride and groom, and that birth certificates are shown. In addition, a massive awareness raising campaign was conducted with local communities.

This November, UNICEF and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) will convene a ‘Forum on Religion, Culture and Child Rights’ to mark the 25th Anniversary of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. I hope that this, and other regional efforts, will bring closer the day when no more girls or boys in Asia Pacific will lose their childhood because of child marriage.

The author
Grace Agcaoili is Regional Child Protection Specialist for UNICEF East Asia and the Pacific

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