Post 224.

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.

For more information, see the IGDS 2013 Public Forum on the Marriage Acts of Trinidad and Tobago which provides informed perspectives by Gaietry Pargass, Dr. Jacqueline Sharpe and Carol Jaggernauth.

http://www.looptt.com/content/womantra-religious-support-under-age-marriage-obscene%E2%80%9D

 

 

Post 228.

A process that began with the 2004 version of a Draft National Gender Policy is soon to be completed. Those years have involved letters to the Editor, media interviews, press releases, strategy meetings, appeals to political representatives and officials, think pieces by columnists, and public actions. All of this to maintain that approval of a gender policy is one measure of a government’s commitment to gender equality.

I put this into national print record because, although a gender policy is a reflection of the state’s position on how equality should be pursued across all ministries, its roots lie with the global women’s movement, which began to pursue women’s and gender policies from the 1980s, and fearlessly criticized governments when those policies missed core issues, contained contradictory positions, or failed at adequate consultation. It was the global women’s movement that mainstreamed the idea that every state policy, from health to education to trade, has an impact on equality and equity, on women’s lives and on the relationship between masculinities and power.

Though an approved gender policy will be marketed by government as a sign of its leadership and liberalism, that story hides the subtext of relentless lobbying by women’s and LBGT movements, whose leaders have survived and been lost to cancer, who faced the harm that comes from religious and atheist backlash to feminist aspirations, and who ushered in another generation of activists by organizing them around policy advocacy.

Hopes have been dashed, such as when ex-PM Manning trashed the first policy draft, forcing Joan Yuille-Williams to backtrack, even though she had pulled the state and women’s movement together to create a progressive product that reflected clear thinking or 20/20 vision rather than a later Vision 2020. As a young activist, I was very critical of her capitulation, but the party machine and Manning’s authoritarianism prevailed. At the time, he infamously made a statement about not believing in ‘gender flexibility’ which can only be described as a denial of vast anthropological scholarship and actual reality.

Hopes were further crushed when the 2009 draft, which informs the one now heading to Cabinet for approval, said in bold type: “The National Policy on Gender and Development does not provide measures dealing with or relating to the issues of termination of pregnancy, same-sex unions, homosexuality or sexual orientation”. In other words, rights for the respectable. There were religious constituencies happy that discrimination and inequality were front and centre in a policy meant precisely to tackle how our beliefs about gender and sexuality reproduce discrimination and inequality; a holier-than-thou, bitter irony.

Marlene McDonald led the process to the 2009 draft. I found myself, also ironically, wishing for elder stateswoman “Auntie Joan”, who included women’s rights in a way that didn’t leave us so utterly kicked out of the door. In the last election, McDonald actually used the PNM Women’s Platform to attack Brenda Gopeesingh and Hazel Brown for the fact that a gender policy was buried alive by Kamla Persad-Bissessar, knowing full well that endless advocacy continued and that the women’s movement cannot be answerable for what Cabinet decides to do or not do.

Keep this very point in mind. The current draft is founded in unfair concessions to intolerance and sheer prejudice, and divides those who have rights from those who will not any time soon. As long as a gender policy fails to acknowledge the role homophobia plays in reproducing sexism, it is running in place. Further, the fact that the policy leaves abortion out of its notion of public health means it excludes thousands of women from its idea of the citizen public.

We will celebrate approval of a gender policy for we value every step forward. We will remember that it is not only a victory for state and party, but for feminist women and men speaking out all these years. However, we will maintain that the policy should leave no woman out because of her health choices, and nor any man or woman because of sexual orientation. We will not forgo all hope that one day an approved gender policy will be inclusive and just, and no longer subject to the Machiavellian politics of governing parties. Advocacy will and must continue.

*For a discussion of the relationship between sexism and homophobia, see this TEDx PoS talk: