Maranao children and their future

On my recent trip to Lanao del Sur to take a look at the rehabilitation effort in Marawi, six years after it was devastated by a five-month-long war with the Maute armed group, I was able to visit some of the villages surrounding Lake Lanao. What I saw and heard on these quick visits convinced me that unless the conditions that breed economic stagnation and despair in these communities are decisively addressed, armed groups, that go by different names and espouse quasireligious and political beliefs, will just keep on sprouting.

Maranao families are larger than anywhere in the country, and livelihood opportunities are limited. Young people drop out of school to find ways of earning a living to help support their families. The girls marry young, even when the desire to finish college is especially strong among them. There are children everywhere. When barangay health workers run out of pills to give away, planned parenthood programs simply collapse.

In one coastal barangay along the northeastern side of the ancient lake, the local ulama, who must be about 50-years-old, told us he had 14 children — two by his first wife, three by his second wife, and nine by his third. Some of the men sniggered at this unintended boast but the women just blankly stared, finding none of it funny.

About 20 children surrounded us while we discussed the state of their families. The scene struck me as a sharp reminder that if these kids do not finish their schooling and are not given a chance to land a decent job here or abroad, they would be likely candidates for recruitment into an armed group. Joining one comes easy when there isn’t much to do or hope for. While the Daulah Islamiyah-Maute and the Abu Sayyaf may style themselves as ideological, those who are drawn into such groups often see membership in them primarily as a livelihood.

And yet, by no stretch of the imagination is this province the poorest or most depressed in the region. The Maranao are known to be entrepreneurial, and take utmost pride in the educational and professional achievement of their children. Before the Marawi Siege of 2017, no one thought that a forward-looking community like Lanao del Sur could possibly serve as a staging ground for an Islamic State of Iraq and Syria-linked terrorist group.

But the signs have long been evident in the demographic data. The Bangsamoro Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) has been for many years the country’s fastest growing region in population. Within BARMM, Lanao del Sur has the highest household size at 6.5. Girls outnumber the boys in school; women graduates greatly outnumber the men in both high school and college.

Total fertility rate (TFR) is an estimate of the average number of children that would be born to every woman aged 15 to 49 if they were to live to the end of their childbearing years. The Philippines is alone in Southeast Asia with a TFR that has historically been way above the replacement rate of 2.1. Indeed, in the 1950s, the Philippines found itself in a category along with Rwanda and Kenya with an awesome fertility rate of higher than seven children per woman. (My own mother, who bore 13 children, was of that generation.)

Our TFR has, however, gradually declined over the years. In the first National Demographic and Health Survey (NDHS) conducted in 1993, the country’s TFR stood at 4.1. This went down to 3.7 in 1998, to 3.5 in 2003, to 3.3 in 2008, to 3.0 in 2013, and to 2.7 in 2017. Preliminary findings from the latest NDHS done in 2022 show that the Philippines—with a TFR of 1.9—has finally joined the ranks of countries with fertility rates below the replacement level. (For comparison, Thailand’s TFR is about 1.5) But the situation in rural Philippines does not reflect this demographic milestone. In 2017, the TFR for BARMM stood at 3.1 even as the whole country’s fertility rate had gone down to 2.7. It’s likely to hover closer to 3 and decline rapidly as more and more Muslim women are given the chance to complete their education and postpone marriage. That is the challenge facing Muslim Mindanao (and for that matter the rest of the country): How to ensure that the transformative power of education is brought to the remotest parts of the country and reaches the women especially.

I like to think this is already quietly happening in Mindanao. A stone’s throw away from the sad spectacle of Marawi’s ruins lies the beautiful main campus of the Mindanao State University (MSU). Untouched by the siege and the protracted war to flush out the Maute fighters, MSU-Marawi remains a refuge for the life of the mind and a nurturing ground for youthful aspirations. At one of the classrooms of the College of Public Affairs, I interacted with 15 social work students, all women except for one, who had just finished their internship with my host nongovernment organization, the Community and Family Services International. As they talked about their field experiences, I caught a glimpse of the desired future of Maranao children.