Friday, January 19, 2018

The politics of child marriage

This past week has witnessed a return to the child marriage controversy, this time in the political arena as politicians engage in virtual verbal battle in the Parliament to amend the Miscellaneous Provisions (Marriage) Bill, 2016.
Currently, girls may marry at age 14 and boys at 18 under the Hindu Marriage Act while their Muslim counterparts may marry at age 12 and 16 for girls and boys respectively. Under the Orisa Marriage Act, girls may marry at age 16 and boys at age 18. Under the Marriage Act, Chapter 45.01, which governs Christian and Civil Marriages, consent can be obtained for marriages of minors under the age of 18.
On the surface, it may seem that the bill seeks a mere amendment and while some women's groups and human rights organisations may view it as a positive move, the procedure by which the Government hopes to achieve the amendment is cause for alarm.
This highly sensitive moral, humanitarian and social issue has not only elicited strong sentiments from religious organisations but has also become extremely politicised.
Unfortunately, the extensive consultations which should have preceded such legislation were hardly realised. Given the multiple stakeholders involved and the varying views on the issue, one would have expected that the Government would have engaged in extensive discussions and consultations before moving to amend the legislation.
Attorney General Faris Al-Rawi initiated the parliamentary debate with some interesting statistics on marriages of minors across the religious divide. The figures revealed that for the last 20 years there have been 3,478 such marriages. Of these 1,156 were civil, including Christian and non-Christian, 526 were Muslim and 1,796 were Hindu. Almost 99 per cent of the total involved young girls.
While it is hardly debatable that the popular sentiment is against child marriage, some religious groups contend that there are really no child brides in this country. Secretary general of the Maha Sabha, Sat Maharaj, insists that “there is no Hindu child marriage in Trinidad and Tobago. There is Hindu teenage marriage”.
Other dissenting voices were actually heard in the Parliament, including those of two temporary Opposition senators and Independent Senator Dhanayshar Mahabir.
The position on child marriage is not a unified, national one. Neither is the entire population in support of age 18 as the legal age for marriage.
This was articulated by Senator Mahabir, who pinpointed the cultural diversity of this society and the need to consider teenage pregnancies. He also insisted that consideration be given to marriage at age 16 for both males and females.
Moreover, Senator Mahabir advocated for legalising abortion and repealing “the most oppressive laws which make homosexuality a criminal offence”. These two issues have bedevilled the Gender Policy for years, preventing it from becoming law.
While the marriage of minors continues to be a cause of concern, it is not a burning issue for the average citizen. Rather, the bigger outrage is for the many children who are being murdered, raped and molested on a daily basis.
The position of the Opposition United National Congress (UNC) was reiterated by Senator Wade Mark who affirmed that the UNC supported the legal age of marriage to be 18 years. However, the Opposition is willing to compromise for persons between 16 and 18 years of age.
The parliamentary procedures being adopted to amend the bill now pitch the discourse into the political arena. In a shocking move, the AG now proposes to amend the legislation so that the bill would require a simple rather than a special majority of three-fifths.
It is indeed worrying that the AG would even consider embarking on such a course on the advice of senior attorneys. This in itself seems quite curious as the advice allegedly informs the AG that the bill does not require a three-fifths majority.
Does this mean that the same procedure of interfering with the Constitution can now be used as a precedent for passing bills on constitutional reform and abolishing the Privy Council, both of which require a special majority?
It is quite disturbing that the AG is opting to take the advice of senior attorneys to disregard the Constitution which is the fundamental pillar upon which the Westminster model of governance and democracy stands. The belligerence becomes even more alarming when the AG announces that he is prepared to be taken to court on the matter.
This hasty and autocratic move is cause for concern. Indeed, the urgency seems quite baffling especially since the much greater outrage of the society today is against criminal activities.
The AG may be well advised that the legislation on child marriage would hardly add to the Government's political capital.
What may narrow the widening Government-citizen gap are serious policies to treat with the heinous crimes being committed against citizens, including children.