I’m appealing today for a collaborative approach to and funding for systematic research on child marriages in Trinidad and Tobago. Such research would cost about TT $300 000 and could be easily funded by any person, family or business with an interest in the life opportunities of girls as well as an interest in seeing research underscore public debate.
Frankly, given their investment in this issue, this is research that could and should be collectively funded by organisations such as the Maha Sabha, ASJA and others who wish to see what the facts of girls’ experience say, and it would roll out with broad representation including women’s organisations and others on a research advisory committee which would ensure lack of bias and methodological rigor. Will to work collaboratively as adults would show a true commitment to the best interests of girls, as hundreds have been married while still adolescents.
“Religious autonomy” cannot be a legitimate basis for fighting legislative change to the legal age of marriage without a systematic understanding of what the experience of these minors has been in Trinidad and Tobago. Does such autonomy, largely the privilege of male religious leaders, really trump greater vulnerability to violence or more limited self-determination amongst girls now contractually bound to relationships that may not be in their best interest? Is avoiding unwed motherhood a valid reason for marriage even if it turns out these girls cannot negotiate their rights and needs as women should be able to within their relationships? Alternatively, is it true that, amongst the majority of these girl children, their educational aspirations haven’t been compromised and, indeed, they have the freedom for personal self-development of others their age?
The response to this question has been that girls in Trinidad have not been married as ‘children’, but as teens, though I’d argue that distinction is problematized by the Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which we are a signatory, as well as by contemporary norms around adolescence, which recognize how important this period of self-development and setting one’s own aspirations are for girls’ capacity to negotiate gender relations in later life.
The second response would be that, yes, early age marriage is better than unmarried motherhood even if it’s not better for the girl. The third response would be that teenage mothers benefit from stable household arrangements, though it’s not clear if they gain this through marriage as much as parental care.
Rates of domestic violence, across the entire country, suggest that marriages are not the site of safety and protection they are idealized to be. There’s enough data to suggest that they are also a site in which women experience subordination and inequality. Does pregnancy, which may occur because of lack of information about contraception or lack of ability to negotiate safe sex, imply readiness for managing marriage?
Global data on girls married as teens is unequivocal about its harm to their power and choices. In Trinidad and Tobago, there is only anecdotal evidence, and small qualitative studies of older women. No one has systematic, cross-religious data to either counter international studies or to clearly detail how marriage is experienced by girls married at 12, 13, 14 or 15. What we are left with are girls’ bodies and sexuality as symbolic markers of a poignant narrative of religious resistance to colonization and legal non-recognition. It all seems to be about everything, but the girl.
While the data on abortion, pregnancies, HIV and early marriage present a picture worth disentangling, they point to the early sexualisation of girls and a range of life-long implications. It would be great if multi-faceted interventions, which include school-based sexual health education, would thus be part of religious organisations’ advocacy.
I’m supportive of an exception from sixteen for both girls and boys, with a limit of three years age difference, which is consistent with the Children’s Act. I’m sympathetic to the outcry against the quick switch from 3/5 to simple majority. I’m not sympathetic to prioritizing religious authority over girls’ best interest. And, I’d welcome collaboration to produce research which establishes, first and foremost, what the contemporary experience and implications of marriage have been for girls. If you agree, please contact me.