Sen. Risa Hontiveros, principal author and sponsor of the bill. | Photo courtesy of Senate of the Philippines

The Senate has passed a bill declaring child marriages a public crime in the country.

Senate Bill No. 1373 was approved by the upper house on final reading Monday with 21 affirmative votes, no negative vote, and no abstention.

In a press statement, Sen. Risa Hontiveros, principal author and sponsor of the bill, said the measure aims to promote the empowerment of women and girls by abolishing unequal structures and practices that support discrimination and inequality against women and children.

She cited the United Nation’s Fund report showing that 750 million women and girls today were married before they reached their 18th birthday. Of the figure, two percent got married even before they turned 15-years-old.

In the Philippines, child brides are estimated at around 726,000, making the country the 12th highest in the world in terms of absolute numbers.

A 2019 survey by the Oxfam-led Improving Availability of Reproductive Health Services in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao or the ARCHES Project, showed that 253 or 24 percent out of the 1,058 respondents coming from Lanao del Sur, Maguindanao, and the Basulta regions (Basilan, Sulu, and Tawi-Tawi) were cases of child marriage, and 97 percent of them involved girls.

The statement further said that while poverty may be one of the reasons for child marriages, Hontiveros said a more subtle impulse behind the practice could be attributed to social norms in communities where entrenched gender inequality is common.

“This gender inequality plays a key role in making girls disproportionately affected by this cultural practice. Female children are falsely seen as contributing less to the household, and is expected to eventually leave to join the family of her husband making them of less value than male children,” Hontiveros said.

She said a baseline study on violence against women conducted by Oxfam revealed that among the respondents from Maguindanao, social pressure is the main reason why girls enter into marriage early, many of them between the ages of 14 to 17.

“This bill considers the act of child marriage a public crime and penalizes any person who facilitates and solemnizes this union. Being conscious of existing cultural practices, the bill introduces a culturally-appropriate program and services that will be responsive to the needs of those who will be affected by this law,” Hontiveros said.

Under the bill, any person who causes, fixes, facilitates, or arranges a child marriage shall be fined P40,000 or suffer the penalty of prision mayor in its minimum period. However, should the perpetrator be an ascendant, step-parent, or guardian of the minor, the penalty imposed shall be prision mayor in its maximum period and a fine of not less than P50,000 and the loss of parental authority over the minor.

Any person who performs or officiates the formal rites of the child shall suffer the penalty of prison mayor in its medium period and a fine of not less than P40,000 in addition to perpetual disqualification from office if he or she is a public officer.

According to Hontiveros, the Department of Social Work and Development shall be the lead duty-bearer in the formulation of such program and services, and in the implementation of the law.

Aside from Hontiveros, the bill was also authored by Senate President Vicente Sotto III, Majority Leader Juan Miguel Zubiri, Minority Leader Franklin Drilon, and Senators Leila de Lima, Joel Villanueva, Imee Marcos, Sonny Angara, and Francis “Kiko” Pangilinan.