Post 252.

An historic victory was won last week when child marriage was prohibited by amendments to the marriage laws of Trinidad and Tobago. This was a victory for the women’s movement, supported by male allies and working across race, class and religion, despite how fraught that can be. I was relieved both PNM and UNC MPs voted for an amended law. I was sorry the change failed to happen under Kamla Persad-Bissessar as early as 2010.

The call first came from the Hindu Women’s Organisation (HWO) more than six years ago. Organisations such as the IGDS and FPATT became involved by 2013. Lobbying expanded over the last two years, as a coalition of civil society organizations, including Womantra, CAISO, the Network of NGOs of TT for the Advancement of Women, the Association of Female Executives of Trinidad and Tobago (AFETT), the YMCA, CAFRA and more, was brought together by Folade Mutota and WINAD.

It was discriminatory for girls to be marriageable earlier than boys. There was no contemporary reason for this other than girls’ sexual vulnerability at a younger age. The solution isn’t marriage, it’s transforming such vulnerability to older male sexual predation. That this was overwhelmingly an issue affecting adolescent girls points squarely to how gender inequality leads to denial of full self-determination at a much younger age for girls than boys.

The majority of these marriages were between girls under sixteen, and boys and men who were, at times, much older.  This is not the Ram and Sita or Romeo and Juliet story of two teen secret lovers nor of their unwed adolescent sexual experimentation nor of family protection of two secondary students supported to finish both this and tertiary schooling.

Largely working class girls, perhaps with limited educational support or options, and definitely limited prospects for occupational advancement, were experiencing the greatest vulnerability to early sexual initiation by adult men, who usually also had low educational or occupational achievement.

Marriage may have seemed like a secure economic option because an older man promised to look after them. Perhaps, they were seduced by a feeling of adulthood that sexual relationships bring. Maybe they were in love or escaping oppressive and insecure family conditions, or they got pregnant and marriage seemed the next step. It’s likely they didn’t have a clue about the compromises, conflicts and responsibilities that come with partnership with a hardback man.

Rather than “the destruction of family life”, what was destroyed was the legal access of adult men to teen girls. This was necessary if we recognize how gender, religion and class unequally impacted thousands from lower-income families.

There were recommendations that teenagers over sixteen, but within three years of age, be allowed to marry. Such an exception had merit. That the exception didn’t make it to the legislation is a complicated story about the AG vs the HWO and the coalition.

What happens to the babies of unwed mothers? Families and partners can still love and support them such that teenage girls finish schooling, can secure their own income and can decide what they want out of their lives. A change to the marriage law in no way affects this.

If lack of respectability associated with unwed pregnancy is a major fear, then the solution is to give girls knowledge, support and access to contraception.

Adult hypocrisy, rather than “strict family values”, is at stake here for no one wants to girls to have sex, whether by choice and desire or by grooming and predation, without the threat and likelihood of dire consequences. So no one wants to prepare them to protect themselves if they do. When they are made pregnant, everyone can treat them as if they are responsible for the shame. The solution can’t be marriage to the same adult man who didn’t know or care enough to use condoms or protect a teenage girl’s future freedom in the first place.

Too early pregnancy isn’t a more important issue than too early marriage. Like child sexual abuse, they are consequences of adult failures to acknowledge girls’ sexual vulnerability and empower even poor girls to secure better options. If we care as much as we say, all the other work must now gain momentum.

 

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Post 234.

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.

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