MARANTAO, Lanao del Sur (MindaNews / 30 May) – At 23 years old, she already has two children of her own. The eldest is five, and the youngest is a year old. She was 17 when she got married, as classes were suspended during the five-month long Marawi Siege in May 2017. She was in Grade 11 that time.
“Hindi ko alam ang feelings ko ngayon,” (I do not know what I feel now.) was how Norjannah Tantuas Hassanor, 23, answered when asked how she felt about her life being a young mother.
“Pero pinoprotektahan ako ng aking asawa dahil mahal niya ako at nanay ako ng kanyang mga anak,” (Nevertheless, my husband protects me because he loves me and I am the mother of his children), the young Meranaw mother added.
Norjannah was full of potential for a successful life outside of an early marriage. She was a consistent honor student and often represented her school in academic and extra-curricular competitions. A beautiful young girl, she became the muse of her municipality in 2015, winning the Miss Marantao beauty pageant at the age of 15.
With the suspension of classes and economic difficulties, Norjannah went to Metro Manila to live among relatives there and to work. Worried as to what might happen to her in the metropolis, the man who would become her husband pursued her there. Because of this, their parents arranged for them to be immediately married.
Unlike some cases of parental arrangement in marriage practiced in the community, Norjannah said that she already had a positive feeling towards her husband even before they were married. Her husband, now working with the municipal government in Marantao, a municipality located next to Marawi City in the province of Lanao del Sur, had an eye for her when they were still in school. He was two years older than she was.
“Pangarap ko sana ang maging isang teacher,” (My dream was to become a teacher.), Norjannah said as she was recalling her childhood memories. She said that her husband is amenable to the idea of her pursuing her studies.
A Mother of 17 Children
Norjannah was the 10th child among 17 siblings. Her mother, Fatima P. Tantuas, 52, was parentally arranged for marriage at the age of 16 to a distant cousin.
“Kung ano ang gusto ng mga magulang, iyon ang masusunod,” (Whatever the parents want for their children, that is what is adhered to), Fatima said, explaining why she married early.
At the age of 42, Fatima gave birth to her 17th child. All her children were delivered by a panday (traditional midwife) and were born at home as the barangay of Maul Ilian does not have a health station nor a birthing center. Of her 17 offspring, three were cases of neonatal death; one died a week after delivery and the two others died of disease before reaching one year old.
In 2017, infant mortality in the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) was reported at 37 per 1000 births, according to the Philippine Statistics Authority.
“I want all my children to finish schooling,” Fatima said in Tagalog. She was in her first year in high school when she got married and was not able to pursue further formal education.
Fatima and Norjannah, mother and daughter, now help each other pursue further studies through a self-help women’s organization in their barangay. The organization, Sagorompong o Masa Women’s Organization (United Women’s Organization), conducts weekly Islamic seminars for women. Norjannah is the secretary of the organization and her mother is a member.
The German Federal Foreign Office provided the women’s organization with tables, chairs and white board to support their learning sessions. Around 100 women regularly attend this weekly learning session. The project, Women Engaged in Responsive Solutions to Conflicts and Violence in Mindanao (WE RESOLVE), implemented by Relief International and Balay Mindanaw Foundation, also supported the women’s organization with a livelihood project to help them sustain their peace initiatives.
A Matter of Maratabat
Another woman with the same name as the young mother, Norjanah T. Macadatar, 37, a teacher by profession, is the Mushrifa (an Arabic term for supervisor) of the women’s organization in Maul Illian. Norj, as she is fondly called by the women in the village, inherited the leadership post from her mother, Noraida Tiboron Macadatar, 73, a retired public school teacher. It was her mother who started the weekly Islamic seminar for the women of the community way back in 2011. This woman learning session is now implemented by the women’s organization organized through the WE RESOLVE project.
For the women of the village, the weekly seminar is a religious undertaking. During the Marawi Siege in 2017, the elderly Noraida encouraged the members to resume the weekly gathering, saying “Kailangan natin mag du’a upang matigil ang gulo.” (We need to pray together to stop the armed conflict.). Thus, amid people evacuating from the ongoing battle in the neighboring city, the women of Maul Ilian gathered together to pray, reflect on the teachings of Islam, and support each other amid the fragile situation.
A year after the siege, her mother suffered a heart stroke and was paralyzed. Norj, the daughter, continued her mother’s work as Mushrifa, even as she was caring for her bed-ridden mother. She leads in the weekly conduct of the Islamic seminar and other peace initiatives in the village. Her mother passed away on May 28, 2023. “The Islamic Seminar in the community is my mother’s legacy and I am duty bound to continue her work,” Norj said.
Like many of the women in the organization, Norj too was married off at the early age of 19 to her 21-year old cousin, right after her graduation from high school.
In Norj’s case, the family of the man approached her parents to offer their son in an arranged marriage. She said that the cultural tradition of their village dictates that one may not reject such a proposal because it will cause shame on the part of the one offering their child in marriage. “Kung tatanggihan ng pamilya ko ang alok na pagpapakasal, ito ay mapupunta sa takwil,” (If one refuses the offer of marriage it will result in “takwil”) Norj further explained.
Takwil is a Meranaw practice of severing ties among families and clans when one party is offended. As Meranaw places high premium on clan relations, the takwil is avoided at all cost. Thus, Norj acceded to the arranged marriage.
Two years into the marriage, Norj gave birth to a baby girl, her first born. She named her Marjana, a name of Arabic origin that means coral and in other cultures it may mean grace.
Unfortunately, the marriage did not last long. A year after Marjana was born, Norj and her husband separated over the former’s misunderstanding with her sister-in-law.
At one point after their separation, an opportunity for reconciliation presented itself. However, Norj ditched the idea. Speaking in Tagalog, she said, “I do not want to appear among the villagers that I am the one pursuing him.” She became a solo parent to Marjana, when the monthly support of P1,000 from her former husband stopped coming four years after the separation.
“A Meranaw woman has to keep her maratabat,” she said.
The concept of maratabat may not have an exact translation in other cultures, but most scholars agree that it embodies the “Meranaws’ deep sense of personal honor, dignity, self-esteem, and reputation.”
For Norj, as a Mushrifa, the social expectation to keep her maratabat is higher. She is expected to be a role model for other women. This role modeling includes dressing modestly, conducting herself with propriety in public, maintaining a good reputation among the people, and exercising active leadership in the organization.
Saved by the Law
“Ayaw kong maging batang asawa” (I do not want to become a child bride).
This was what Norj’s daughter Marjana, who was already 15 years old and enrolled as Grade 7 in the nearby public school, answered when asked what she thought about early child marriage. Speaking in Tagalog, she shyly added, “I want to become a doctor.”
According to a 2017 United Nations Children’s Fund report, one out of seven women in the Philippines married before they became 18. According to the Bangsamoro Women Commission, there were around 88,600 child brides in the BARMM as of 2021.
Marjana may yet see her wish come true as the Philippine Government passed into law Republic Act No. 11596, An Act Prohibiting the Practice of Child Marriage and Imposing Penalties for Violations Thereof. The law was signed by then President Rodrigo Duterte on December 10, 2021 but only publicly released by Malacañang on January 6, 2022. The law contains strong penalties for those who arrange or facilitate, participate, and/or officiate the marriage of a person under 18.
All child marriages happening after the law was enacted will be considered “void ab initio,” meaning they would not be legal. For the BARMM, the law allowed for a one-year transitory period during which the penal provisions were suspended specifically for Muslims and Indigenous Peoples. The transitory provision for Muslims and Indigenous Peoples expired last January 6, 2023.The new law repealed or modified Presidential Decree No. 1083 or the Code of Muslim Personal Laws that allowed Muslims in the country to marry even at age 15 and below. (Jules L. Benitez/MindaNews)