Post 232.

Regrettably, it is uncertain whether Tuesday’s Senate vote on the Miscellaneous Provisions (Marriage) Bill 2016 will actually lead to protection of girls from too-early marriage. The Bill has to be passed by the House of Representatives before it becomes law, and it will likely be passed now that the AG has framed it as only needing a simple majority, which the PNM can provide.

However, having been passed, it is likely that a constitutional case will be kick-started to establish whether or not constitutional freedoms were violated and whether or not the AG was correct to tactically switch from a 3/5 to simple majority passage.

No one can tell at this point whether such technical considerations regarding constitutional law will lead to the amendments being overturned or upheld. In the end, it will become about a battle between UNC and PNM, and religious patriarchs versus the state. The best interest of girls, whether or not they represent a minority of marriages, will disappear from priority.

The UNC, under Kamla Persad-Bissessar, helped to create this disgusting situation. In government, the party courted and relied on religious conservatives, and was unwilling to risk ire of this small but vocal segment for a more progressive approach to women’s and girls’ rights. In last Wednesday’s debate, they brought in temporary senators to present perspectives, clearly vetted by the party, which the wider population found shocking and partially misinformed, particularly in terms of why the Children’s Act’s (2012) “Romeo Clause” rightly decriminalizes adolescent sexual relations.

The UNC’s approach was to friend up all sides simultaneously, thereby showing only supreme self-interest. On the one hand, Persad-Bissessar has said she herself supports raising the age of marriage to eighteen years old. On the other, the party brings in men who oppose that position, under the guise of inclusion and representativeness. Such mixed messaging sparked concern, certainly in the women’s movement, that sending the Bill to a Joint Select Committee would lead to it being buried there or watered down to assuage patriarchal interests.

Keep in mind that the legal age for girls to marry is eighteen years old in India and Iraq, and sixteen years old in Pakistan and Egypt. So, let’s be clear that there is no single Hindu, Christian or Muslim perspective on the legitimacy of marrying girls at fourteen or sixteen years old.

It’s in this context of the UNC’s unwillingness to do the best thing for girls that the AG may have wrongly made his tactical switch. The fact that the need for a 3/5 majority was included in the December 19, 2016 version of the Bill is itself a sign that he and the drafters recognized that there were constitutional implications.

The expediency with which those paragraphs were removed was bound to be seized on by the UNC as the AG playing politics with law. So, the AG may have to take his chances in court, at taxpayers’ expense, risking having this key amendment overturned on a technicality, at girls’ expense. I applaud his willingness to push through this legislation, and here the UNC has not one moral leg to stand on, but the AG’s decision has made the process more politicized and messy.

Speaking of messy moralities, the UNC is now using language of “respect for family life” in its constitutional counter punch, showing instead no respect for globally-established, detrimental effects of early-marriage on girls, and global conventions to which we are a signatory. It is unbelievable that girls’ individual life chances are still being subordinated to those of the “family” in a way that is not applicable to boys, with party leadership ignoring such legal inequality.

The Miscellaneous Provisions (Marriage) Bill 2016 simply seeks to raise the age of marriage to eighteen years old. Women’s organisations have argued that possible amendments should have included an exception allowing both girls and boys to marry from sixteen years old, with counseling and parental permission or, instead, a magistrate’s permission given with these adolescents’ capacity, choice and best interest in mind.

As this debate moves to the House, the nation must insist that girls’ self-development and rights are our priority. If you agree, make those 41 MPs represent you. This legislation is overdue.

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

 

 

Feature speech at Network of NGOs for the Advancement of Women Young Woman of the Year 2012 Award Ceremony held at Crown Plaza, Trinidad.

Good evening Everyone and especially the Young Women nominated for the Young Woman of the Year 2012 Award. You are such an inspiration!

Thank you Hazel Brown for asking me to be here with you all today.

The biographies of these young women show immense individual ambition, self-confidence, initiative and creativity, as well as clear commitment to community, country and the environment. These are all the qualities that every parent, and especially every mother, would be proud to see in their daughters.

To these qualities and commitments, I want to add the idea of solidarity – and particularly solidarity with other young women across differences of class, ethnicity, geography, religion and sexual orientation. What kinds of solidarities do I mean? Why do they remain important?

Young women are doing well, you are doing well, but many young women still need us to lift as we climb.

Violence in our homes remains prevalent. In my classes with only about 80 students, the majority have either experienced violence against women or know someone who has. Violence stops so many girls and young women from imagining and reaching their potential and it remains a reality that a new generation must unapologetically confront on your own terms and in your own ways, but confront it you must. We know that violence and control get reproduced in within teen relationships, making it hard for girls to have boyfriends and also full decision-making about their movements, friends and freedom, and making it hard to negotiate condom and contraception use. If there is one thing that young women can do, its provide non-judgmental peer spaces for young women to be able to share their experiences of family and sexual violence from family, seek strength and sisterhood, and make choices that are healthy and right for them rather than for others, whether those others are parents or religious leaders or partners.

Part of this violence is the issue of child sexual abuse and incest, which like domestic violence, continues to predominantly affect girls in our society, reproducing silences that run throughout families and communities, silences that will not protect us, silences that leave us no less afraid. The Institute for Gender and Development Studies at the UWI, where I work, has embarked on a national campaign to raise awareness about child sexual abuse and incest, using the symbol of the blue teddy, and I want to encourage young women in the different kinds of work that you do – in dance, sports, arts and community organizing, to use your creativity and networks to help break the silence about sexual violence in our homes, as an act of solidarity with other young women who have grown used to a reality of shame and repression rather than transformation and freedom from anger, betrayal and fear.

In my classes, the majority of students – though thankfully not all – also know someone who has had an abortion. This is the reality within which young women are coming of age, and as a new generation, you need to continue the struggle for safe rather than unsafe options for termination of pregnancies as well as for wide, national access to contraception, education and counseling. Trinidad and Tobago has a high teenage birthrate, and I imagine, also a high teenage rate of abortion. I myself know a handful of young women in their twenties who have terminated pregnancies and each time I have wished that they had access to safe, legal medical options, to patient rights, to responsible doctors. Is your politics one that seeks to secure these options or not? While the decision is yours, the implications reach out to other young women who you may never meet, or perhaps may one day come to know and care about.

There are two other issues that I want to touch on before I move on. The first relates to proposed changes to the Marriage Acts of Trinidad and Tobago, and efforts to increase the age of marriage from 12 and 14 to, at minimum, 16 or even 18 years old. Young women have not been at the forefront of the national debate on this issue and it affects you. There are issues of religion, respectability and so on that shape how the marriage of young girls is understood, but most important are the views of young women and questions of the power inequalities in such relationships, girls’ ability to make such long-term choices at such a young age, and the impact that early marriage makes on girls’ ability to experience adolescence as a time when they come to decide who they are and want to be for themselves.

Finally, I must speak tonight about the recently passed but not yet proclaimed Children’s Act of Trinidad and Tobago. This extremely progressive and much needed Act decriminalizes sexual activity amongst minors, as it should – for there are other responses and solutions rather than the heavy hand of the law, but it also explicitly criminalises sexual activity against minors, children under 18 years old, when those activities take place between minors of the same sex. This denial of equal rights to young people – and young women – must not be allowed. It is absolutely discriminatory, it divides youth against each other, it leaves some children protected and makes others punished, it prevents open discussion about healthy, safe and authentic sexual desires and choices, and it reproduces a nation where some young women experience the privileges of full citizenship and others, from as young as twelve years old, do not. Young women, we need your voices to join with those who cannot safely and openly speak for or be themselves. That is what solidarity is about.

Solidarity is based on the vision that you hold for the world and I know you are all young women of vision. Is your vision that all young women grow up in families without physical or sexual violence, is your vision that they grow up in communities that don’t respond with silencing and shame, is it that young women grow up in a world where despite sex being everywhere, they nonetheless cannot speak openly about it to parents, teachers, religious leaders and other adults without following a script that says they must be chaste…because where does that leave them if they are not? Is your vision that no medical practice – especially those only performed on girls and women, will ever take place in unsafe conditions? Is your vision for a generation not divided by race, politics, class, religion or sexual orientation, but able to find those few precious spaces of common ground – despite our differences, on the basis of our equal human rights, our commitment to making sure that all in our society have the protections and freedoms that still only some benefit from? What is your vision for the young women least able to speak about their realities, those most judged, those most left to fend for themselves without the powerful, visible solidarity of their young sisters?

There are many groups of young women to speak about. I chose these groups today because we need to break silences about them, and we need amazing young women like you to be unafraid of doing so on behalf of your generation. Every generation of young women must challenge the generation of women and men before them to secure expanded forms of justice, peace, equity, freedom and solidarity, because our silences will not protect us in the ways that our solidarities will. So, while you young women are involved in such a diverse array of fields – agriculture, music, dance, jewelry, entrepreneurship, arts, sports, conservation, charity and community-building, I also want to push you to think about how your own work can transform the lives of those young women we speak about least and hear from least.

That’s why I speak about young women struggling through child sexual abuse and incest who need to no longer protect their families, young women who have terminated pregnancies and whose stories we need to hear rather than condemn, those lesbian young women who we pretend, in all our righteousness and even hypocrisy, do not exist, when all of them like you are simply young people who need to be given the chance to make the life for themselves that feels right and is based on self-confidence, self-love and the warm embrace of family and community belonging. A generation before me could sit uncomfortably in their chairs, but these young women will be no less afraid and I certainly am not afraid to speak with – and when necessary for – them…and in so doing for me, my vision, my nation and the world in which I want to live.

Solidarity is grounded in being unafraid, knowing that speaking with and for your sisters may not make you popular but it will make your politics thorough and true. And you are the generation of young women in the history of this post-slavery, post-indentureship and post-colonial society most able to do so. You all are educated, you are powerful, you are creative, you are driven and you are brave. You best know how to bring your bredren in to support your work because the work to right the world for young women is not women’s work, it is the work of a generation with the power, smarts and opportunities to make change. It’s not your job to get young men involved, it’s your job to demand they represent, standing next to and in solidarity with you. Nothing is stopping them and, don’t let anyone fool you, boys and men still have power they need to share and power they can contribute to the struggle to end violence, to recognise girls’ right to make decisions regarding their bodies and to end homophobia.

You best know how to reach out to those younger than you and you are already doing so. You are linked in with rural, religious, cultural, musical, agricultural, environmental, entrepreneurial communities that the Network of NGOs wouldn’t know where to begin to find. Those spaces that are yours are the same ones where these issues are lived and where the needs and rights of young women can be taken on.

Your time is not in the future, frankly it is now. It is for these reasons that we recognise and acknowledge the work of the Network of NGOs for the Advancement of Women, and in the spirit of the work of still to be done, recognize and celebrate you. Congratulations to all of you amazing young women and good luck with the work that you do.

Thank you.
Gabrielle Jamela Hosein
November 23, 2012.