Children in urban poor communities are always vulnerable to abuse. (Photo by Angie de Silva)
From when she was 11-years-old, Jazell was forced to live with an older man of almost 40 years of age.
She was treated like his "wife" — living in the house with him, cooking, cleaning, and being sexually abused. Jazell became pregnant at 14 and had a baby. Her father approved of it, and the community stayed silent about the situation.
Rosita was also 11-years-old and was the target of the sexual desires of a 45-year-old man who paid a dowry to Rosita's parents. A piece of paper confirmed that what happened was a "marriage arrangement," making Rosita a "child bride." She also got pregnant and had a baby at the age of 14.
According to UNICEF, as many as 700 million women alive today were treated like Rosita when they were young girls. They were sexually used by older male adults. They were called "child brides."
Millions of little girls around the world are forcibly paired with older men when they are as young as 11-years-old. "Child bride-taking" has become a cover for pedophilia. It has become a front to justify child sex and escape the penalties of law. Most of the girls are raped during the act of the so-called consummation of marriage.
There is no marriage in the moral sense because clear knowledge, free consent, and informed choice have to be present for such a union to be valid. But while laws are in place to forbid child marriages in most developing countries these are generally ignored.
In Bangladesh, 71 percent of girls in rural areas are "married" before they reach 18 years of age compared to 54 percent in urban areas, giving the country one of the highest child marriage rates in the world.
A piece of paper saying a union between a female child and an older man is "marriage" makes it all legal and right. But it is not all right for the child who suffers abuse and a loss of childhood, education, and a life of human dignity.
In Bangladesh, a new law signed by its president on March 11 forbids the marriage of adults and children. But a built-in loophole still allows adults to marry children. The law states that child marriage is forbidden except in "special cases." The law does not say what these special cases are.
Poverty is the driving force behind many forced child marriages. Poor parents see their girl as capital that can lift their economic status. The children are seen as chattels, the property of the parents. The younger a girl is the more she earns for the family.
Some say it is not pedophilia if the man has sex with a 9-year-old provided it is approved by socio-cultural or religious customs. They say the child marriage phenomenon is driven by socio-cultural forces and economic considerations.
One international NGO says: "One aspect that clearly distinguishes child marriage from pedophilia is the socio-cultural milieu, where child marriage is practiced.... This is the reason, unlike pedophilia, child marriage is practiced and defended by not only the parents, but also their community and leaders."
In the Philippines, two percent of children are forced into a "marriage union," apparently at times condoned by local officials. Some NGOs will challenge this practice. It is not widespread yet the live-in relationship or the sex-slave union is common but not called marriage.
The child victim is left helpless and abused by a live-in partner with the consent of relatives as long as the child provides for the family. No legal complaint is filed and a child abuser gets away with the abuse and the community remains silent and condones it.
Only a few brave people report child sexual abuse although it is a common community crime and as many as one in three girls as young as 8-years-old are victims of sexual abuse. Many such victims have been brought to the Preda child therapeutic care center.
So how is pedophilia different when the same sexual abuse is covered by a so-called marriage paper?
Irish Father Shay Cullen, SSC, established the Preda Foundation in Olongapo City in 1974 to promote human rights and the rights of children, especially victims of sex abuse.