Yesterday, in the Senate of Trinidad and Tobago, a bill was introduced to standardize the age of marriage to 18. Hard to believe, but still now, girls can marry (supposedly at their own volition and without the consent of their parents) at 12, 14 and 16 under the relevant civil/Christian, Muslim, Hindu and Orisa laws. Under these same laws, boys can marry without parental consent at 14 (civil/Christian), 16 (Muslim) and 18 (Hindu and Orisa).
These laws are not relics, not artefacts, metaphorically rusty from disuse. Between 2006 and 2016, 548 such child marriages took place in Trinidad; 51% under the Hindu law, 34% under civil/Christian law and 15% under Muslim law. This is a cross-religious phenomenon.
Child marriage disproportionately affects girls and is part of the undergirding of patriarchy which we have been collectively dismantling. It uniquely secures legal access by men to the bodies of girls at a time in their lives when they do not have the capacity to give informed consent as is acknowledged in sexual offence legislation all over the world.
In this country, between 1996 and the present, 97% of child marriages were of girls. These girls can be as young as 12 as was the case in 2008. And if that is not enough chilling news, the available data shared by the AG shows that the men who ‘married’ these girls were as old as 52. Marriage of girl children is a sheer perversion. It legitimizes conduct that would otherwise be child sexual abuse. How can it be otherwise?
With all that we know about power differentials of age and gender and the vulnerability of girls to rape and sexual predation, you would think that reforming this law would be non-contentious; quickly enacted with a minimum of argumentation. It is evidently the decent, moral, ethical, right and rights thing to do to protect girls from exploitation and assault and from interrupted social, emotional and psychological development.
But after a straight forward and compelling presentation by the AG, we listened to the mortifying assertion that girls are ready for marriage, meaning it would seem, ready for sex, as soon as they experience puberty. One of the real impediments to social justice everywhere is the deployment of tradition, culture or religious dogma as a shield to justify discrimination (especially sex and gender) and as a sword to silence others.
The majority of people in this country already know that child marriage is plain wrong. We cannot stay silent now. This opposition by a few to greater child protection and gender equality is an outrage. Let us make sure the right thing is done.