Australian supported women-friendly spaces promote healing for conflict-affected women and girls in Mindanao
MARAWI CITY, The Philippines – “What? I’m getting married today?!” a shocked Mimah exclaimed when she was told – on the same day of her wedding – that she was to be married.
The tradition runs deep in Mimah’s family. Her mother, Calima, was married at 14 years old.
Calima recalled, “I had to run and hide away with my friends. I went back to my husband after three years when I felt I was ready.” She added, “With Mimah, my older brother believed that the man could give my daughter a better life. My husband and I merely obeyed him.”
Mimah was 17 when her uncle arranged her marriage to a 21-year-old. She decided to stay in the marriage for as long as she could. However, after more than a year, she decided to leave behind her drug-dependent husband, and her constant fear for her own life. She wanted a different life, one that would allow her to pursue her studies and start a career, and at the same time support her family.
“Child marriage is very common here. Some brides are even younger than I am. They would have the ceremony at an early age and wait for the girl to grow up to be with the husband,” Mimah expressed.
Healing at the Women-Friendly Space
In a bid against gender-based violence and harmful practices such as child marriage, the Australian Government supported the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) in March 2019 on a comprehensive approach to protect conflict-affected women and girls in Mindanao.
One of the initiatives under this partnership is the establishment of Women-Friendly Spaces in three temporary shelters in and around Marawi. Women-Friendly Spaces are safe spaces where women and girls can learn about their rights, receive psychosocial support and referral services, and freely express themselves.
In one of these Women-Friendly Spaces, Mimah was finally able to find her own voice and share her feelings and experiences in front of her mother. This eventually extended to her home.
Calima said, teary-eyed, “I am now very much against child marriage. I never want anyone to experience what my daughter and I experienced. I will support her choices and let her live her life accordingly.”
Mimah’s father also saw how much she grew over the years. He voluntarily attends the sessions and encourages other men to support the Women-Friendly Spaces.
“I really felt the changes at home. They respect me, and they see and value the choices I make for myself,” Mimah added.
Understanding and living the Qur’an
Soon enough, Mimah’s passion in educating women on gender inequalities and their rights reached an Islamic religious leader who later visited the Women-Friendly Spaces. Mimah recounted, “He was livid because gender, as discussed in our sessions, seemed to go against the tenets of Islam.”
In response, Mimah calmly explained the modules and invited him to attend more sessions. It was a fruitful endeavour as the leader eventually reconciled Islam and women empowerment. “We also learned from him. He taught us how the lessons at the Women-Friendly Spaces are similar to the teachings in the Qur’an in giving value to women.”
Professor Anwar Radiamoda, an Islamic Studies professor at the Mindanao State University, further added that Islam provides protective layers for women who experience gender-based violence. “The Code of Islam says that women cannot be forced, and we should have high regard and respect for our women,” he emphasized.
An Ongoing Battle
According to UNICEF, the Philippines ranks 12th among countries with the highest number of child brides at 726,000. This is backed by the 2017 National Demographic and Health Survey, which estimates that 1 out of 6 Filipino girls is married before the age of 18.
While progress has been made in criminalising child marriage in the country with the passing of the “Girls not Brides Act” in the Senate, much is needed to be done in addressing the religious, cultural and economic factors that perpetuate this practice.
Towards this goal, the Australian Government and its partner UNFPA will continue to protect and empower women and girls through the Women-Friendly Spaces, and work alongside with the Philippine Government, religious and community leaders to prevent and address gender-based violence and child marriage.
As for Mimah, she will continue to further dedicate her work in reconciling Islam and women empowerment. “I realized that I have the power to turn my negative experiences as a tool to help other women. They are not alone. They have the power to choose, they are in charge of their own lives, and they can change other people’s lives,” Mimah proudly said.
This post was originally published on UNFPA Philippines.