BusinessMirror - - Front Page - By Cai U. Or­di­nario

The world re­cently marked the In­ter­na­tional Day of the Girl Child, but the re­al­ity is, mil­lions of them are still vic­tims of abuse— of­ten dis­ad­van­taged from birth by tra­di­tion, ar­chaic and of­ten cruel laws or com­mu­nity rules, and lead­ers who don’t care enough or re­al­ize how much in­ac­tion on their plight spells loss not only to the in­di­vid­ual but a na­tion de­prived of their gifts.

AS the el­dest daugh­ter, some­how, Ali­cia (not her real name) knew she would con­tinue study­ing along with her broth­ers. But it al­most did not hap­pen for her.

When she turned 12, some rel­a­tives told her fa­ther, who had sud­denly lost his job on the eve of en­roll­ment, “It’s more im­por­tant to keep your six boys study­ing since they’ll be work­ing. Your girl is 12 now [and] in a few years she will get mar­ried and her hus­band will feed her. She’ll be of no eco­nomic value to you.”

The state­ment came as a com­plete shock to one of Ali­cia’s un­cles. He im­me­di­ately in­ter­vened and put a stop to the non­sense. An­other aunt also stepped in and en­deav­ored to help Ali­cia find schol­ar­ships to keep her in school. “So from age 12, I had to fend for my­self aca­dem­i­cally.”

But that was over five decades ago. At home, Ali­cia even­tu­ally be­came the pri­mary bread­win­ner of the fam­ily as she built her ca­reer. In the work­place, she is con­sid­ered one of the most re­spected lead­ers in her field of choice.

She has worked to help many young men and women find their way in the world while sup­port­ing her fam­ily. All these would not have been pos­si­ble if she hadn’t been saved by her “guardian an­gels.”

But not all girls are as lucky as Ali­cia.

Many of them end up mar­ried off to older men or be­come moth­ers even be­fore they reach their teen years. They be­came vic­tims of the deaf­en­ing si­lence that sur­rounds the is­sue of child brides and teen moth­ers.

Teen brides and moth­ers

BE­FORE cel­e­brat­ing their 15th birth­day, a to­tal of 59 chil­dren got mar­ried in 2017, ac­cord­ing to data re­leased by the Philip­pine Sta­tis­tics Au­thor­ity (PSA). An over­whelm­ing ma­jor­ity of these chil­dren, 51, were girls. PSA added that around 32,353 teenage girls be­tween 15 and 19 years old got mar­ried in the same year.

While none of these teen brides were mar­ried in the Ro­man Catholic Church, 31 of them were mar­ried ac­cord­ing to Mus­lim tra­di­tion and 17 were mar­ried through a tribal cer­e­mony. The data showed two were mar­ried through other re­li­gious cer­e­monies and one was mar­ried through civil rites.

Among the 15- to 19-yearolds, some 13,199 were mar­ried through civil rites; 11,715 were mar­ried in the Ro­man Catholic Church; and some 5,860 of them were mar­ried in other re­li­gions. Less than a thou­sand of them were mar­ried ac­cord­ing to Mus­lim tra­di­tion and through tribal cer­e­monies.

In a re­cent state­ment, the Philip­pine Leg­is­la­tors’ Com­mit­tee on Pop­u­la­tion and De­vel­op­ment (PLCPD) said child mar­riage ex­poses chil­dren, par­tic­u­larly girls, to many and some­times life­long and ir­re­versible neg­a­tive health and de­vel­op­ment im­pacts.

“Ac­cord­ing to the PSA, mar­riage and fam­ily mat­ters is the top rea­son for girls drop­ping out of school, while preg­nancy- and child­birth-re­lated com­pli­ca­tions among young moth­ers ac­count for 22 per­cent of all ma­ter­nal deaths in the coun­try. Early preg­nancy also has neg­a­tive con­se­quences for the health and sur­vival of the child of the young mother,” PLCPD said.

Apart from child brides, teen preg­nancy is also among the most press­ing is­sues of to­day.

Based on the 2017 Na­tional De­mo­graphic and Health Sur­vey ( NDHS), 9 per­cent of women age 15 to 19 are preg­nant with their first child or are al­ready moth­ers, a de­cline from 10 per­cent in­ci­dence in 2013.

The Com­mis­sion on Pop­u­la­tion and De­vel­op­ment (Pop­com) said teenage preg­nancy has been on the rise in the Philip­pines in the past few years and preg­nancy among chil­dren aged 10 to 14 years old more than dou­bled in just over 10 years.

Pop­com cited data from the PSA, which showed there was an in­creas­ing trend in the num­ber of births from moth­ers aged 10 to 14 years old. About 2,250 live births from very young ado­les­cent moth­ers were re­ported in 2018.

Statu­tory rape

POP­COM Ex­ec­u­tive Direc­tor Juan An­to­nio Perez III said, in a re­cent we­bi­nar hosted by the Zonta Club of Metro Or­ti­gas to cel­e­brate the In­ter­na­tional Day of the Girl Child, that one of the wor­ry­ing trends is that births among these teen moth­ers were sired by older fa­thers.

“Births among mi­nor moth­ers are gen­er­ally sired by older fa­thers [20 and above] at 64 per­cent, with only 36 per­cent fa­thers age 10 to 19 who were re­ported or who have ac­knowl­edged the births,” Perez said.

Of the 62,341 births from moth­ers aged 10 to 17, some 26,971 were sired by fa­thers aged 20 to 29 years old. This in­cludes the birth of a child born of a 10-year-old and 11-year- old mother.

Based on the data shared by Perez, an­other 11-year- old gave birth to a child sired by a 52-yearold; a 14-year-old mother gave birth to a child sired by a 61-yearold; two 15-year- olds gave birth to chil­dren sired by a 62- and 76-yearold; and two 16-year-olds gave birth to chil­dren sired by a 73-yearold and by an over 80-year-old.

The PSA data also showed that of the 62,341 births, some 16,694 were sired by fa­thers who are be­tween 15 and 19 years old, while an­other 16,371 births did not state the age of the fa­ther.

“Many of them are prob­a­bly cases of abuse. Most likely,” Perez ear­lier told the Busi­ness­mir­ror. “Once you see some­one 10, 11, 12 years old giv­ing birth, there’s abuse there. That’s statu­tory rape. So we should be do­ing more. Even the hos­pi­tals should be re­port­ing. It should be a sig­nal. Peo­ple are just not con­scious about it.”

With teenagers be­com­ing preg­nant early, Pop­com said the dis­counted life­time wage earn­ings fore­gone by a co­hort of teenage women 18 to 19 years re­sult­ing from early child­bear­ing is es­ti­mated on the av­er­age at P33 bil­lion.

Perez ex­plained the age-earn­ings (wage rate) pro­file is higher among those who com­pleted high school com­pared to those who did not. Early child­bear­ing re­duces age-earn­ings ( wage rate) pro­file through its ef­fect on high-school com­ple­tion.

The sit­u­a­tion be­comes even more dire with the Covid-19 pan­demic. Perez said the lock­downs may have in­creased the num­ber of teenagers who be­came preg­nant.

As­sum­ing a 9.5-month quar­an­tine pe­riod, ac­cord­ing to the Univer­sity of the Philip­pines Pop­u­la­tion In­sti­tute (UPPI) and the United Na­tions Pop­u­la­tion Fund (UNFPA), teen preg­nan­cies among 15- to 19-year- olds could in­crease by 21.4 per­cent or an ad­di­tion of 18,000 preg­nan­cies this year.

Perez said the data showed that the ex­pected 84,000 in a year with­out lock­downs would in­crease to 102,000 preg­nant teens this year.

Change through leg­is­la­tion

IN or­der to bring about change, sev­eral non­govern­men­tal or­ga­ni­za­tions are ral­ly­ing be­hind the bill filed by Sen. Risa Hon­tiveros which will pro­hibit child mar­riage in the Philip­pines. The bill was re­cently ap­proved by the Se­nate on sec­ond read­ing.

The pro­posed bill seeks to pro­vide equal pro­tec­tion for all girls in the coun­try by ex­plic­itly pro­hibit­ing child mar­riage and crim­i­nal­iz­ing its fa­cil­i­ta­tion and sol­em­niza­tion.

PLCPD said the bill de­fines child mar­riage as an act of child abuse pun­ish­able un­der Repub­lic Act 7610, or the Spe­cial Pro­tec­tion of Chil­dren Against Child Abuse, Ex­ploita­tion and Dis­crim­i­na­tion.

“Af­firm­ing that mar­riage shall be en­tered into only with free and full con­sent of in­tend­ing spouses, the bill de­clares that be­trothal and child mar­riages shall have no le­gal ef­fect. Aside from these, the bill en­joins na­tional govern­ment agen­cies and lo­cal govern­ment units to launch pro­grams that will help pre­vent the prac­tice of child mar­riage,” it added.

The bill, PLCPD said, will ad­dress the preva­lence of child mar­riage in the Philip­pines, where one in six Filipino girls gets mar­ried be­fore reach­ing the age of 18.

De­spite laws set­ting the min­i­mum age for mar­riage at 18 years old, PLCPD said child mar­riage hap­pens in the coun­try due to the Code of Mus­lim Per­sonal Laws.

It said that these laws al­low par­ents to marry off their chil­dren at pu­berty; cul­tural tra­di­tion among com­mu­ni­ties, and poverty and lack of ed­u­ca­tion, among oth­ers, are also fac­tors. How­ever, co­hab­i­ta­tion among chil­dren is also of­ten prac­ticed as a re­sult of early preg­nancy.

Apart from this, there are sev­eral bills filed at the Se­nate which seek to raise the age of con­sent from the cur­rent 12 years old. In some Se­nate bills, the pro­posal is to raise the age of con­sent to 15, 16 and 18 years old.

In a re­cent bud­get hear­ing of the Na­tional Eco­nomic and De­vel­op­ment Au­thor­ity (Neda), of which

Pop­com is one of seven at­tached agen­cies, Un­der­sec­re­tary Juan An­to­nio A. Perez III said rais­ing the age of con­sent can help “scare off” older in­di­vid­u­als from ex­ploit­ing teenagers.

Perez added Pop­com is rec­om­mend­ing that the Se­nate also look into in­clud­ing all mi­nors who are giv­ing birth, many of whom are part of the vul­ner­a­ble pop­u­la­tion, to be given so­cial pro­tec­tion.

He said when teenage girls be­come preg­nant, they drop out from school. If their fam­ily re­ceives a con­di­tional cash trans­fer (CCT), this govern­ment as­sis­tance will stop with their preg­nancy.

The Pop­com Ex­ec­u­tive Direc­tor said these chil­dren should then be given as­sis­tance not only dur­ing their preg­nancy but un­til they reach the age of 25 to help them sup­port them­selves and their child.

The girl child’s fate

ALI­CIA con­sid­ers her­self lucky for hav­ing an out­spo­ken un­cle and a re­source­ful aunt who fought for her rights to be ed­u­cated. Their help opened the doors to so many op­por­tu­ni­ties.

With all the strug­gles she went through, jug­gling house­work as the el­dest daugh­ter while keep­ing a schol­ar­ship since age 12, Ali­cia looks back with a sigh, and says, with­out any bit­ter­ness, “I guess I be­came 30 when I turned 12.”

But her thoughts go out to all the mil­lions out there whose screams are be­ing drowned by the si­lence that keeps them from max­i­miz­ing their po­ten­tial as girls, as women.

“I was lucky to have ‘guardian an­gels’. But mil­lions of girl- chil­dren don’t. [There is] unimag­in­able lost op­por­tu­nity, both for them and their coun­try,” Ali­cia said.

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