Published On: Tue, Jun 13th, 2017

Child marriage now illegal in Trinidad and Tobago

child marriagePORT OF SPAIN - Child marriage is now illegal in Trinidad and Tobago. On June 9, 2017, the country's parliament unanimously passed legislation to outlaw the practice, changing the legal marriage age to 18.

Prior to this amendment of the Marriage Act, some members of the Hindu and Muslim religious communities engaged in the practice, and there was great public outcry in May 2016 when Harrypersad Maharaj, the leader of the Inter-Religious Organisation (IRO), a group that brings together representatives from the country's diverse religious groups, said that the state should not interfere because “age did not determine maturity”.

This, despite the fact that Trinidad and Tobago is a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), which defines minors as “every human being below the age of 18”. UN statistics for the period 2002-2012 in Trinidad and Tobago show that the percentage of children who were married by age 15 was 1.8 percent and by 18, 8.1 percent. In 2011, the country's Central Statistical Office confirmed that more than 8,400 girls and 1,300 boys under 19 were married between 1997-2007.

Online petitions and social media agitation seeking to get child marriage laws off the books were swift and well supported, and no doubt aided this end result. However, there were hiccups. One Hindu leader, for instance, had no qualms about telling child marriage critics to “mind [their] own damn business”. Such religious opposition made what would ordinarily have been a straightforward issue a little more fraught and at one point, there was doubt as to whether the opposition would even support the bill.

But in early 2017, the Miscellaneous Provisions Marriage Bill was passed – even with four opposition senators (including a woman) and one independent choosing to abstain – paving the way for the bill to be debated in the House of Representatives, where a simple majority would make it into law.

Now, all that remains is for the country's president to assent to it, then have the law proclaimed.

The majority of social media users were elated that the laws on child marriage had finally changed. Facebook user Lovell Francis, who holds the post of minister in the ministry of education, said: “It was overlong and full of pointless double talk but you know what child marriage is now illegal in Trinidad and Tobago and that is worth almost any price.”

But there may be a fly in the ointment in the form of Sat Maharaj, the secretary general of the Sanatan Dharma Maha Sabha, the country's most high-profile Hindu organisation. Months ago, Maharaj had announced his intention to take legal action should the legislation have passed, and appears he is following through.

While Attorney General Faris Al Rawi, who championed the bill, has said it is Maharaj's legal right to challenge it, most social media users wished that debate about the issue could be approached differently.

Patricia Worrell suggested: “If, instead of framing the discussion broadly, and in a way guaranteed simply to generate panic and resentment, as ‘inviting the state into our bedrooms’, we talk about the specific issue of the state ‘protecting our girl children from any possibility of being abused by big, hard back, advantageous men’, would you be prepared to go on with that discussion? Or do you think that's a non-issue?”

Whether it is eventually challenged in court or not, this legislation is an important step – but there are still places in the world where child marriage enjoys various shades of legality or continues to be the norm, despite laws to the contrary.

This article written by Janine Mendes-Franco originally appeared on Global Voices on June 12, 2017

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