Trinidad gov­ern­ment says time for re­view of child mar­riage laws

The Star (St. Lucia) - - REGIONAL - – Caribbean360

Amid calls for gov­ern­ment not to touch laws that al­low girls to marry as young as 12 years old, Min­is­ter of State in the Of­fice of the Prime Min­is­ter Ayanna Web­ster-Roy in­sisted there is a “crit­i­cal need for the age of mar­riage to be aligned to the age of con­sent for sex­ual con­duct”.

The is­sue has been the source of much pub­lic de­bate fol­low­ing com­ments by the Pres­i­dent of the In­ter-Re­li­gious Or­ga­ni­za­tion (IRO) Har­ryper­sad Ma­haraj and gen­eral sec­re­tary of the Sanathan Dharma Maha Sabha, Sat­narayan Ma­haraj, that the min­i­mum age for mar­riage should be re­tained.

Cur­rently, un­der the Hindu Mar­riage Act, a girl may marry at age 14 and a boy at 18; the Mus­lim Mar­riage and Di­vorce Act al­lows a girl to marry at age 12 and a boy at 16; while the Orisa Mar­riage Act makes pro­vi­sion for a girl to marry at age 16 and a boy at age 18. But Web­ster-Roy noted that those statutes con­flict with the age of con­sent to sex – 18 – re­flected in the Chil­dren Act, 2012.

She also pointed to the harm­ful con­se­quences of chil­dren mar­ry­ing too early. “Early mar­riage can ex­pose a child, in­ter alia, to de­creased op­por­tu­nity for ed­u­ca­tion; se­ri­ous health risk such as pre­ma­ture preg­nancy and sex­ual trans­mit­ted in­fec­tions since the child cannot ab­stain from sex or in­sist on con­dom use; high risk due to early preg­nancy such as death dur­ing de­liv­ery, en­dan­ger­ing the health of young moth­ers and their ba­bies; and in­creased like­li­hood of be­ing sub­jected to gen­der­based vi­o­lence,” the min­is­ter said.

“More­over, early child­hood mar­riage ter­mi­nates many of the el­e­ments as­so­ci­ated with a healthy and en­joy­able child­hood and cre­ates a cy­cle of poverty by cur­tail­ing the ed­u­ca­tional op­por­tu­ni­ties of the chil­dren in­volved.

“It is the Gov­ern­ment’s view that chil­dren are en­ti­tled to the fullest ben­e­fits of child­hood and to the en­joy­ment of their rights as chil­dren and the Gov­ern­ment is com­mit­ted to the pro­tec­tion and ful­fil­ment of these rights. In this re­gard, there is a crit­i­cal need for the age of mar­riage to be aligned to the age of con­sent for sex­ual con­duct,” she added.

Mean­time, the Ro­man Catholic Church and other bod­ies which are among the 25 re­li­gious or­ga­ni­za­tions that make up the IRO, have dis­tanced them­selves from the or­ga­ni­za­tion’s dec­la­ra­tion that mem­bers had unan­i­mously agreed at a re­cent meet­ing not to sup­port any amend­ment of the Mar­riage Act with re­gard to the per­mis­si­ble age of mar­riage. Ma­haraj had said the IRO had taken a unan­i­mous de­ci­sion on the mat­ter, but Arch­bishop Joseph Har­ris said the Catholic Church does not agree with that po­si­tion and nei­ther of its reg­u­lar rep­re­sen­ta­tives at­tended the meet­ing at which the de­ci­sion was taken.

Har­ris de­scribed child mar­riage as “le­gal­ized statu­tory rape”.

“A 13-year-old does not un­der­stand what mar­riage is about, and so they should not be forced. A 13-year-old is a child, a 13-year-old ought not to be forced into that type of re­la­tion­ship. That is le­galised statu­tory rape,” he said.

Ad­min­is­tra­tive of­fi­cer at the Sil­ver Lin­ing Foun­da­tion (SLF) Kennedy Everett Maraj, also ar­gued that al­low­ing a child to en­ter into mar­riage shows con­tempt for the rights of the child.

“Some have ex­pressed the view that teen preg­nan­cies are of greater con­cern than teen mar­riages,” re­fer­ring to the IRO pres­i­dent’s com­ments. “SLF is of the view that one is in­trin­si­cally linked to the other. Al­low­ing mi­nors to be mar­ried is ex­pos­ing them to sex­ual con­tact be­fore they have learnt about their own sex­ual iden­tity.”

And the Diego Martin United Church also de­nounced state­ments jus­ti­fy­ing child mar­riage and called on the Gov­ern­ment to en­sure the rights and pro­tec­tion of all our coun­try’s chil­dren, over and above any re­li­gious law and prac­tice to the con­trary.

The church said sex­ual ac­tiv­ity be­tween an adult and a mi­nor “is pae­dophilia and it is dis­grace­ful for any gov­ern­ment to have it en­shrined into any law or Mar­riage Act for any per­ti­nent group or other”.

At­tor­ney Gen­eral Faris Al-Rawi is ex­pected to make a state­ment on the con­tro­ver­sial is­sue soon.

The is­sue of child mar­riage has again stirred up de­bate in Trinidad and Tobago.

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