Government has the right and the power to amend the laws on child marriage. This right and power is not just because Parliament’s responsibility is to legislate for the best for all in the nation, particularly its most vulnerable citizens. More precisely, it is because the government should and must harmonize all the laws governing the minimum age of sexual consent.
The Children’s Act (2012) sets the age of sexual consent at eighteen years old. Sexual relations between girls and boys who are both minors or within three years of age have been decriminalized. However, sex between adults and minors, meaning children under eighteen years old, is defined as rape.
In the case of the marriage laws, the majority of child marriages occur between girl children and male adults, at times constituting the legalization of statutory rape. This is the overriding issue that our society has to address.
The argument that we should pay attention to teenage pregnancies rather than child marriage is a misleading one. Child marriage and teenage pregnancy are parts of the same problem, which is too early sexual initiation, particularly in the lives of girls.
The sexualisation of girlhood, by older men, is a phenomena that has devastated the lives of girls across the region, leading to high rates of early forced sex, to girls 14 to 24 years old having one of the highest rates of HIV infection, and to teenage pregnancy. The consequences of these affect girls’ educational and economic options, cementing their dependence on others, rather than increasing their independence and self-sufficiency.
Both teen marriage and pregnancy also have to be situated in a wider context of widespread child sexual abuse, mainly by adult men. This month, the Children’s authority publicized that 1000 cases of sexual abuse were reported to the Authority in the period May 18, 2015 to February 17, 2016. Of that, 142 children were in sexual relationships with adult men, with 61 of them becoming pregnant or having had a child. If those children were married to those adult men, would that make their situation more morally acceptable? To whom?
We’ve dealt with girls’ greater vulnerability to early sexual initiation by denial of the importance of sexual education through our school system. How else to protect our nation’s girls but with information about their bodies, health, safety, rights, options and sources of services and support? Learning how to make and live those decisions best for your future as a growing girl is a better solution to teen pregnancy than marriage.
The second approach that we have taken is shame and blame. The marriage solution makes sense in this context, for it seeks to restore respectability to a girl child, restoring respectability to the family. But, here, obeying the tyranny of respectability may not be doing what is best.
Research on past child brides suggests that girls were compelled into marriages far more than they chose them. Forced by parents who saw them liking a boy and decided a wedding had to take place. Other girls agreed because they were unhappy in their family homes and marriage provided escape. Still others were just doing what was expected, without understanding all the implications. Minors ending up in relationships with adult men had far less bargaining capacity to decide the fate of their lives, and had higher risk of violence.
Over the past six decades, girls themselves have decided against marrying as minors. This can be seen in the vast increase in the age of marriage over this period, once the decision was increasingly in empowered girls’ hands.
This also means that the actual numbers of child marriages are low. However, this is not a numbers issue. It is an issue of having a single, consistent legal position about the age of consent, what constitutes rape of a minor, and what the right approach to different aspects of girls’ sexual vulnerability should be.
The Hindu Women’s Organisation, and leaders such as Brenda Gopeesingh, have been consistently and fearlessly calling for this change for the last decade. There is also significant public support nationally and internationally. Despite sound and fury, amending the marriage laws is a low-stakes change. The political fall-out from this decision will be minor. And, a necessary message will be sent about girls’ right to be children, leaving we adults, rather than them, with the responsibility to resist their early sexualisation.