Credit: Columban Fathers

Irish priest wins long battle to protect girls as young as 12 from marriage 

An Irish priest who has spent years fighting to protect children from abuse in the Philippines has won a significant battle as the authorities approve a bill bringing in a 30-year jail sentence for anyone who marries children. 

Fr Shay Cullen, a Columban Mission priest,  who has been nominated for the Noble Peace Prize four times, has dedicated his life to rescuing Filipino women and children from sex trafficking. He has worked for more than 40 years to free women and children from brothels and sex traffickers, providing raped and abused victims with shelter and counselling.

One area of concern identified by the priest was the practice of “child brides” – where girls as young as 12 are being sold off to older men. “Recent reports show that many thousands of girl-children as young as 12 years of age worldwide and in the Philippines are being sold off to men 25 years old and older in so-called “child marriages”,” Fr Cullen recently wrote.

“The pandemic, poverty, loss of jobs and hardship is likely driving the huge increase in the sale of “child brides,” which is really child sexual abuse and a cover for pedophilia. It is a tactic to evade the child protection laws and satisfy their lust and sexual gratification with a child. It has to be stopped.”

“A child cannot exercise free will and give consent to such a relationship when under the pressure of parents and adults. In most cases, there is no formal wedding ceremony. The child is forced to live-in with the older man. A payment or “dowry” in kind or cash is common. Two healthy goats will get you a 15-year old in some villages. But this abusive relationship is a serious violation of human rights.”

The new bill against child marriage (the Girls not Brides Act 2019) has taken decades of campaigning by Fr Cullen and others. He was sent threats for his persistent efforts to oppose tourism and child brides since he was sent to the country by the Columban Missionaries in 1969.

One estimate claims that as many as 800,000 young girls have been married off to men every year in the Philippines, but the new bill can mean that sexual assault can be punished with a sentence of between 16 to 30 years in prison

Fr Cullen has also previously called for a ban on convicted sex offenders from travelling abroad.

“One thing right now I would say to any government is to pass a law that would ban all convicted sex offenders from travelling abroad. That would be a very good thing they could do,” he said. “Why not? The international and Irish sex tourists, why are they coming here raping our children?”

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