Soyez Realistes (Be Realistic)

Before Women’s Month ends, I’d like to take up an important development in the struggle for the rights and welfare of women and girls in the Philippines. Early in March, Sen. Risa Hontiveros had filed Senate Bill 162, or a bill seeking to end child marriages.

According to her data, the Philippines places twelfth in the world where child marriages (those contracted where one or both parties are under the age of 18) occur, and girls are especially vulnerable. She stated that girls who are married early lose opportunities, and are at higher risk for abuse, domestic violence, health complications, and chronic poverty. Moreover, these are in violation of the conventions and declarations of human rights which the Philippines is obligated to uphold.

These are certainly very valid, and this bill and other measures that aim to protect children has my support. It is in the spirit of this support that I raise some points that can hopefully productively add to this important conversation.

In making a persuasive case for this bill, Hontiveros highlighted child brides among the Pala’wan, an indigenous group from the province of Palawan and among the poorest people in a province known for its luxury tourist havens (the photo of very young mothers that accompanies her statement supposedly went viral on social media, though I haven’t seen it in my networks, even after actively searching for it). We also read in the media coverage of this filing that this bill emphasizes the crucial role that culture plays in these marriages and other behaviours that treat women and girls as second-class citizens.

I feel unsettled about the usage of the Pala’wan as an exemplar for child marriages. This is not to minimize it as an important issue among them, but coupled with the prominent tone of referring to “culture” in relation to this phenomenon, it may give us the erroneous impression that child brides are a significant problem only among “tribals” whose “cultures” differ from (or are “backward” compared to) ours. By highlighting its exotic iterations, this “Othering” (as anthropologists call it) could obfuscate matters more. I am reminded of an observation from anthropologist Fenella Cannell in her brilliant study Power and Intimacy in the Christian Philippines on arranged marriages in Camarines Sur. She writes:

Bicolano friends in Naga and Manila were often surprised and amused when I mentioned to them that I was doing some research on arranged marriage. The most common response was ‘Does it still exist? Ay si Fenella must really be living in the bukid (“the sticks”)!’

In this case, it is bukid-dwelling peasants who are considered spatially and culturally Othered. As this vignette implies, Othering also has – whether it is intended or not – a discriminatory undercurrent; policies and programs founded on such notions tend to be patronizing and divisive among people who have suddenly found themselves in a marginal position.

This also raises the question of fair and valid representation of the experiences of young people who have found themselves in this situation. Again, Cannell’s study is instructive. While many of us would immediately bristle at the mere mention of arranged marriage (and some of the marriages she studied occurred as late as the 1970s, and there are a few that involved people who were quite young as well), after an empathetic re-narration of her interlocutors’ stories Cannell says that “many look back on their marriages as having gradually produced just the good partnership which their elders anticipated for them.”

This (for us) counterintuitive result may partly be explained when she states that “It is important to note that arranged or forced marriage is only one end of a continuum of parental intervention in children’s marriages, which at the other extreme tails off into complete freedom of choice for the child… Filipino ‘arranged marriage’ has at no point been the only way to get a spouse; there have always been institutionalized means to circumvent parental consent.”

What this means is that while “arranged marriage” may have been taken as convention and prescribed as the preferred way to wed, a closer examination of actual stories show that there is variation in the degrees this is actually implemented. There are also social mechanisms that allow parents and children to negotiate and ensure aid and support for the marriage, such as parents living nearby or even in the same house as their daughter and her new husband.

This fine-grained look at “arranged marriage” does not always give us the account that we may expect; women here were just as eager to exert control over their lives even as they faced social demands. We can compare this to the story of Maricel here in this article about child marriages that is just as compelling and is less focused on an exotic Other. What is more interesting with Maricel’s interview is that her fate did not seem to have been forced upon her; indeed, there is a sense of personal agency in her narrative – trying her luck with city employment, falling in love, and by insisting that, even after everything, “don’t get me wrong, I’m happy with what I have now.”

To be very clear, none of these mean that child marriages must be condoned. What I wish to point out is that to ensure that this is addressed as effectively as possible, it is important to have a close and considerate grasp of how this actually transpires on the ground. We may find that some notions and values that we take to be self-evident may not be for others, and may possibly become sources of frictions that could impede even the most well-intentioned campaign.

Again I will refer to an anthropological study (see here) of the Manobo of Lianga in Surigao del Sur, where legal anthropologist Augusto Gatmaytan makes an offhand – but very telling – observation: “Initially, there were tensions between the more traditionalist elders and the more progressive MAPASU officials (for example, over the question of boya or arranged marriages, especially those involving adolescent girls), but these issues were eventually worked out.” The emphasis here is mine, and MAPASU here refers to the people’s organization Malahutayong Pakigbisog Alang sa Sumusunod. This observation struck me because the Manobo in Talaingod I work with also have similar experiences: a significant segment of their adult population is politically organized, and yet there have been cases of boya tensions even as these communities have made collective strides such as building schools.

Why? There is no simple answer, but to give a brief guess it may be that for some groups, what is at stake when it comes to economic and political matters (like self-determination, for example) may not be the same things that are at stake in marriage and kinship—universalizing statements we are used to like “the personal is political” notwithstanding.

What this suggests is twofold. First, the path from awareness (of the political sort, for example, or education) to changing a practice may not always be as straightforward as we expect it to be. Of course instilling awareness and education are still very important, but (and this is second) we also have to be prepared to encounter, and not be dismissive or patronizing of, factors that do not lend themselves easily to being addressed through conventional pedagogical (as well as penal) approaches. This entails listening intently to what people have to say and how they construe their situations. This entails not cherry-picking things that they tell us that we happen to agree with, or fit with our frameworks and assumptions. This means that the understanding of “culture” here shouldn’t just be its common, token understanding as “tradition,” “belief,” or even “rules,” but something that is integral to the sense of worth and identity of both individuals and groups. It’s a massive responsibility, really, and something that seems to me to be a continuing challenge—from lawmakers to lumad school teachers.

I’ve been reflecting on this as I work through my notes and stories from fieldwork with the Pantaron Manobo. Many of my interlocutors had marriages that were arranged for them at a young age. Like the women we hear from in Cannell’s book, they are not one-dimensional “victims”, and I have seen contentment and extraordinary affection between spouses who, if we were to project our own expectations, should have been destined for a life of mutual misery and personal dissatisfaction. It is also not lost on them that, while they agree with schooling and other modernizing programs, these bring a new set of anxieties that they must also devise ways to handle.

Anthropologists are fond of saying that culture is not static, but is dynamic and ever changing. Indeed, there are some instances wherein it must. And in such cases, rigor, empathy, and credence to histories and experiences should guide the collaborations that we do in what the 19th-century German educator Gotthilf Hartung called as the Werkstatt des Geistes — the workshop of the mind. (davaotoday.com)

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