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SHE TALKS PEACE: Let children be children

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QUEZON CITY (MindaNews / 27 February) — Last Friday, we commemorated the  36th anniversary of the People Power Revolution that took place on EDSA.  President Rodrigo R. Duterte released a statement calling on Filipinos to emulate the heroism, the “true essence” of the People Power Revolution, that ousted the late President and dictator Ferdinand E. Marcos from Malacanang.  PRRD noted that “this celebration serves as a strong reminder that with unity, cooperation and faith, there is nothing that we cannot collectively achieve for the greater good of our country.”

I wonder how much longer we will be celebrating the People Power Revolution.  The children of today only know it as a holiday, a day to go to the mall and watch a movie.  

Speaking of children, today on “She Talks Peace,” we had an illuminating conversation with Capt. Sherhannah Paiso – a Tausug woman, a military officer, a teacher, psychologist, social anthropologist.  We followed up the debate following the passage of  Republic Act No. 11596, also known as An Act Prohibiting the Practice of Child Marriage and Imposing Penalties.   

Even the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has banned child marriage.  In 2020, the Minister of Justice and Chairman of the Supreme Judicial Council, Sheikh Walid Al-Samaani, issued a circular to all the courts banning the marriage of persons under 18 years. 

Globally, the Philippines is ranked 12 in terms of absolute number of child marriages, according to Unicef.   My cohost, Dina Zaman of the Malaysian think-tank IMAN, says that Malaysia shares similar issues. 

Hannah is now with the Civil Relations Services of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP).  If you wonder why she is so interested in the subject of child marriage, it is not just because she is a psychologist.  She is also concerned about how our children are being engaged in terrorist or violent extremist activities.  As a military officer, she conducts research and collaborates with stakeholders on issues related to conflict and keeping the peace. In her work, she has seen how children are exploited by terrorist organizations. She has seen children as young as 10 exploited by the New People’s Army (NPA).  

Hannah worries that some fathers would rather marry their child daughters off to recognized enemies of the state like the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), rather than they marry drug addicts, or farmers.  Marrying off young girls to terrorist leaders seems to have become their strategy to gain protection or money, to acquire allegiance or strengthen a loyal base on the part of the terrorist organization. Children from other indigenous cultures have also been victims of child marriage. 

In her most recent fieldwork on the Abu Sayyaf in Sulu, she found out that some uneducated parents in impoverished areas marry off their daughters to ASG, because even if they are considered as enemies of the state, they are the rich ones. “So when we interview the fathers, they say they’d rather marry off their daughters to AS who has money, who has firearms, who can protect them.”  Hannah is concerned about  this distorted notion of protection. “That’s why they want an AS as a son in law. Rather than a drug addict, or farmer, or someone who has very low income.”

I asked Hannah what arguments she uses with her relatives who support child marriage, especially those who say “it is our culture!”  

She said that as far as her people are concerned, she explains using science. “Regardless of culture, race, age, anything. Science is science whether you agree on it or not.”  Her argument:  “Simple: a child’s brain is not the same as an adult’s brain. The child is still developing. Doesn’t have a fully developed pre-frontal cortex, which is responsible for higher thinking skills. It will only be fully developed at age 25. That’s why when we look back, we tend to regret our decisions when we were youth. Because at that time, the decision maker is not the frontal cortex, but the amygdala, the seat of emotions, especially fear and anger. That’s why there are so many cases of child marriage, batang ina, batang ama, who regret their decisions later in life, charge it to experience. That’s why parental guidance is very important. Even the sexual reproductive system is not developed. That’s why there are many cases of anemia, STD, all those problems because she is not yet fully developed. Yes, there is a reproductive system, but it’s premature to use it that fast.”

Dina agrees.  In Malaysia, they have the same problem with teenage pregnancies arising from child marriage.

When I asked Hannah about the argument that it’s better to marry off teenage girls so they do not have premarital sex, she had a good laugh.  If you want to know why she laughed, tune in to “She Talks Peace” today.

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(MindaViews is the opinion section of Mindanews. Amina Rasul is the President of the Philippine Center for Islam and Democracy, an advocate for Mindanao and the Bangsamoro, peace, human rights and democracy). 

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