Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Our children’s best interest first


I thought the issue regarding child marriage was a low hanging fruit, given the basis in law that an adult is deemed someone 18 years and over, and since marriage is an adult undertaking, the child marriage laws could be easily repealed. But former Senate president Raziah Ahmed’s curious response to the child marriage debate, firstly—any such change “in the Constitution would take away religious freedom in Trinidad and Tobago,” made me flinch, especially given Ms Ahmed’s eminent status in society—former acting president, senator, and Senate president.
How does one begin to reconcile religious freedom with society’s sacrosanct role to protect the welfare and well-being of our nation’s children, amid numerous police reports of child abuse perpetrated by relatives, teachers and religious leaders etc? Remember, religious freedom does not exist in a vacuum. Freedoms of any kind in a democracy have to conform to the law of the land.
Regarding the goodly lady’s other point, “The law of Islam specifies that children are allowed to be married but with parental consent,” should society sit idly by and allow any parent—bad, good, and indifferent, to make a momentous “adult” decisions, such as marriage for an impressionable child, regardless of the situation and circumstance? In a democracy, the state is charged with the responsibility to safeguard human rights and children’s welfare.
Is Ms Ahmed therefore claiming that the Children’s Authority and other such organisations are usurping the authority of errant parents?
The former Senate president further added: “The fact of the matter is that 12-year-old girls are already having sex in the society. Let us address that phenomenon...this is already happening in the society, why are we pretending it is not happening?” This is a most shocking and callous statement from a former acting president. If 12-year-old girls are having sex, they most certainly are not having sex with themselves or 12-year-old boys, nor can they have consensual sex at that age.
Numerous police reports have revealed that young girls are coerced into illicit sexual activity by adults. It goes without saying that these men are guilty of serious indictable offences, and they ought to be severely punished.
How then can any level-headed person use a serious criminal offence to justify child marriage? It’s unthinkable!
In an attempt to rationalise her stance, Ms Ahmed went on to question why no concerns were being raised against children being allowed to drive expensive vehicles at high speed on the nation’s roadways. That is a non sequitur. After all, what does a licensed driver, or for the sake of argument—a non-licensed “child” speeding on the highway have to do with child marriage? It is the job of the police to address this concern, and the speed gun initiative was recently deployed. Two wrongs don’t make a right, Ms Ahmed.
To my mind, Ms Ahmed has seemingly attempted to disaffiliate Muslim girls from the debate on child marriage, and to debar State intervention in Muslim affairs. But, we are a democratic nation with diverse interest groups and across-the-board laws and processes to protect each and every citizen. We simply can’t have it any other way.
As far as I’m aware, all young adults, including Muslims, harbour the same aspirations and goals. In spite of our challenges, numerous opportunities are available to assist each and every child to realise his/her potential.
Marriage in these enlightened times, is an adult undertaking, and a matter of choice that transcends religion. Besides, this debate is hardly about religion as it is about children’s welfare and protection.
Our legislators have to do what’s best for all the nation’s children. Based on public discussions, there is a growing consensus—child marriage should be outlawed.
It was however refreshing to read ASJA’s acting vice president, Ishmael Mohammed’s “modern” and judicious perspective on the subject, which falls in line with public opinion.
RP Joseph
San Fernando