A phenomenon that involves over 800,000 minors every year. Father Shay Cullen: "An ingrained practice that will take years to uproot".
Manila (AsiaNews) - The Philippine parliament is tackling the scourge of child brides: on September 6 the House of Representatives approved a bill banning the practice of marriages involving minors. According to the most recent data the practise affects over 800 thousand girls every year in the Southeast Asian archipelago.
In reality it is legalized sexual abuse of minors, in some cases forced to marry as young as 12 years old. This problem is particularly widespread in the region of Mindanao, the large southern island with a Muslim majority.
According to a Unicef report, nearly 20% of Filipino girls between the ages of 13 and 17 have been sexually abused. Over the past 10 years, more than 1.2 million girls between the ages of 10 and 18 have given birth to at least one child. It is estimated that every 5 minutes a woman or girl is violated in the Philippines.
Thanks to this bill, any kind of sexual assault or harassment will be punished with a sentence of 16 to 30 years in prison.
Father Shay Cullen, a 78-year-old Irishman of the St. Columba Missionaries, knows the problem well. In the Philippines since 1969, Father Shay has been at the forefront of the fight for human rights and against all forms of slavery and abuse.
In 1974, Father Shay founded the Preda Foundation (People's Recovery Empowerment Development Assistance) in the city of Olongapo, 120 km northwest of the capital Manila, where he hosts girls and young women victims of sexual violence in 5 different facilities.
“I just came from a meeting with a 14-year-old girl that we are trying to save from an arranged marriage," she tells us. "Her family is protesting, saying that it is their right and that the girl has given her consent.”
"It is a form of human trafficking by the parents or relatives, who for a payment or as “Dowery”, which can be money or animals or a piece of land give their young daughter, as young as 12 years to an older man as a live-in partner. Local government officials usually give their approval for a fee," reveals Father Shay.
"The greatest impact is not on Philippine society it is on the child, who suffers trauma for life. It is the trauma that the child suffers by being sexually abused, against her will, by a man twice or three time her age and size. For many years’ local officials arranged and approved the union especially if the child had been raped. The rapist agrees to pay compensation to the parents and a fee to the official for making the amicable settlement and allows the man to “marry” the child. It is fake relationship. This still continues today in many places. The new law will make every arrangement illegal.”
Father Shay Cullen was one of the Philippine delegates to the pre-conference of the Convention on the Rights of the Child passed by the United Nations in 1989 in Helsinki. "The Philippines has come a long way," he reveals, "Awareness of a crime like paedophilia has increased, and over the years there have been numerous convictions against rapists and condescending families. Unfortunately, not enough."
That's why there is still a need for Preda and its valuable work alongside the girls who are victims of this trafficking: "It's true, the law on the age of consent (currently set at 12, ed.) is about to be changed. However, it will take years for it to be implemented and understood by the population: we are talking about a practice that is now ingrained in people's mentality".
For many years the Preda Foundation together with local NGOs have been lobbying and sensitizing the population for a faster awareness of the phenomenon. "Muslim laws have allowed the spread of this malpractice especially in the poorest and most peripheral villages," reveals Father Cullen. "How do I explain all this delay in passing the law? The only plausible explanation is that politicians are corrupt or subject to the influence of paedophile groups and have therefore allowed for 90 years a 12-year-old girl to be sexually abused by a 20-50-year-old man without any legal consequences."