Girl-Child as Substitute Spouse: A Silent Problem


(Labor Migration and Incest in the Philippines)

 “Tay, tama na po…ayoko na po…pagod na po ako…Tay, maawa na po kayo sa akin…” (Father, enough please….I don’t want it anymore….I’m tired….Father, have mercy please…)

Pia consistently begs to a father who seems oblivious to her pleadings. Thirteen-years old and an “unwilling” partner to an incestuous relationship with her 55- year old father, Pia’s life has been like this for three years. Pia’s mother has been working in Dubai since she was eight years old. At age 10, her father began sexually molesting her leading to constant abuse. In all those years, she never got the courage to report such cruelty to her mother or to police authorities.

When the “Light’ is Thousands of Miles Away

Philippines is a key provider of labor migrants and a leading source of female workers to more than 100 nations in the world. Many of these women work as domestic helpers, nurses, caregivers, and entertainers.

The ‘absent-mother’ phenomenon appears to be an emerging practice as rising number of women continue to join the global labor market. The latest assessment reveals that men no longer comprise the bulk of international migrants. Thus, estimates show that approximately 10 million children are growing up without a mother (Torres-Yu, 2011).

Most of the time, OFW children secretly dream about their parents coming home. Frequently, such a dream is kept secret or hidden behind a happy façade as they have been “brainwashed” that parents do this to prepare for their future. With the passage of time, they become numb to the absence and silently accept their “orphan-like” status. Young children cope by playing, while older ones strike up friendships and justify the departure of their parents. Meanwhile, OFW teenagers, particularly females, acquire the penchant to look elsewhere for parental care (Bautista, 2011). In most cases, those who can’t put up with the loneliness turn to drugs, alcoholism, bad company, and for a few, suicide. Distressingly, there are also reports of incest between fathers left behind with the older female children.

 What is Incest?

There is no collective understanding of incest. Even scholars and academic investigators have dissimilar characterizations. The dearth of a common description results to a misperception in data and impedes the determination of the actual number of incest cases that have taken place in the country.

For example, a 1996 study carried out by the University of the Philippines Center for Women’s Studies does not offer a distinct definition of incest even as it reported that a good portion of the cases being studied were “incest” cases. The DSWD (Department_of_Social_Welfare_and_Development) statistical data also fails to clarify its definition of incest. However, a DSWD social worker from the Bureau of Child and Youth Welfare (BCYW) clarified that until 1995, they described incest as “sexual abuse committed against children and adults by persons related to the victims by blood.” Then in 1996, it expanded its definition by including sexual abuse committed against a person by any member of the household which can include house helpers. This expanded definition, however, is not reflected in any DSWD document.

As far as Philippine law is concerned, there is also no legal definition of incest. The 1998 Family Code is the only existing legislation that has some reference to incest, however, its relevant provision (Article 37) refers only to incestuous marriages and not to incest itself: “Marriages between the following are incestuous and void from the beginning, whether the relationship between the parties be legitimate or illegitimate: (1) Between ascendants and descendants of any degree; and (2) Between brothers and sisters, whether of full or half blood.”

The only certified document in the Philippines that defines incest is the Philippine Plan for Gender Development (PPGD). The document defines incest as: “the commission of sexually inappropriate acts or acts with sexual overtones, with a child or adolescent, by an older person or adult who wields authority through emotional bonding with that child or younger person.”

Working Abroad and Incest Cases

In 2009, Child Protection Unit(CPU)-Philippines legal consultant Katrina Legarda said 33% of the total child abuse incidents recorded were incest cases. Citing data from the DSWD, the agency said Region IX (Zamboanga Peninsula) topped the list of areas having the most number of reported incest in 2009 with 90 cases; followed by Region VII (Central Visayas) with 82; Region III, 60; Region II (Cagayan Valley) and National Capital Region with, 50; and Region I (Ilocos Region) with 49. The CPU blamed the high incidence of incest — as well as alcohol and drug abuse — in the country to the increasing number of women working overseas. “This disturbing phenomenon of the girl-child being turned into substitute spouse has been happening in our country along with the feminization of labor migration,” Legarda said. But according to her, the problem, remains mostly unreported because of its sensitive nature and fear of shame that comes with filing a formal complaint.

A 2015 study conducted by the National Baseline Study on Violence Against Children (NBS-VAC) likewise showed a high incidence of violence against children in various forms in the Philippines. In that study, incest was among the crimes being committed. “What was most surprising and most shocking was not only the high level of sexual violence, but also physical violence, and most of it were perpetrated at homes by family members and or caregiver, right in the place where they should be protected and nurtured,” emphasized Lotta Sylwander, Philippine representative of the United Nation’s International Children’s Fund (UNICEF).

Finding Justice

Reporting abuse means recalling and “re-experiencing” the terrible incident, which can be tremendously hard for victims. “When you ask a child victim to recount what happened to her, it’s just like raping her and abusing her all over again. Thus, people need to be sensitive and must consider this aspect before extracting information from a child-victim.

This is precisely the reason why raising awareness on incest is imperative, as it emboldens more victims to come forward, and to seek proper medical and legal help. Though the dearth of current statistics, and its imprecision, can be demoralizing, we still need to strive to help victims heal so that they can have a better life.

“Itay, maawa ka naman sa akin, tama na  po…” (Father, please have mercy…please stop…”)

 “Ssshhh….wag mo na akong tanggihan…’kaw nang magpaligaya sa akin at wala ang mama mo…” (Sssshh…stop resisting…you might as well make me happy since your mother isn’t here…”).

 Let us encourage incest victims to speak out so that this kind of hush-hush conversation should never happen to any child ever again.

Written by Gemma Minda Iso

Gemma Minda Iso, a freelance writer for over 12 years, has published one book and is about to launch her second. She does project-based in-depth research works for foreign clients, writes a column for a local newspaper and speeches for government officials and private company executives. Currently, she dabbles with her events management start-up and is kept busy with her Toastmasters International-related activities.


Bautista, V. (2011). What happens to children of OFWs? Retrieved on March 20, 2015 at

Torres-Yu, R. (2011). Childhood and family in contemporary children’s fiction : resilience, agency , and emergence of new gender norms. Kritika Kultura : Ateneo de Manila University.

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