There was a time in this country when girls as young as 12 could legally be married. That changed on June 9, 2017, with the passage of an amendment to the Miscellaneous Provisions (Marriage) Act No. 8 that established the legal marriage age as 18.
At that historic sitting, the 35 members of Parliament present for the debate voted in favour of the Bill, which amended the Marriage Act, Chapter 45:01; the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act, Chapter 45:02; the Hindu Marriage Act, Chapter 45:03; the Orisa Marriage Act, Chapter 45:04 and the Matrimonial Proceedings and Property Act, Chapter 45:51.
That should have closed a chapter in T&T’s history that was blemished by patriarchy and warped values, robbing many girls of opportunities to enjoy healthy productive lives.
But the contentious national debate that preceded the passage of that Bill was revived this past weekend on an occasion when the focus should have been on celebrating the priceless contributions of East Indians to this country’s history, culture and development.
It was an inopportune time for the president-general of the Sanatan Dharma Maha Sabha, Pundit Krishna Rambally, to attempt to defend an illegal practice. His timing could not be worse, considering this current season when the nation is dealing with epidemics of child abuse, violence against women and girls, a crime crisis and other societal scourges.
But it is clear from Pundit Rambally’s comments that some in this country still cling to views that were deemed invalid when the Miscellaneous Provisions (Marriage) Act No. 8 took effect.
Therefore, it is necessary to reinforce that the arguments still being proffered in support of child marriage cannot stand up against the findings of assorted studies over the years. The bottom line is that the marriage of a person under the age of 18 violates human rights and threatens the health and prospects of young people, particularly girls.
This United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) statement should erase any lingering doubts about the negative effects: “Child marriage ends childhood. It negatively influences children’s rights to education, health, and protection. These consequences impact not just the girl directly, but also her family and community. A girl who is married as a child is more likely to be out of school and not earn money and contribute to the community.”
It is difficult to find any sanctity in a marriage that leaves young girls—and that includes those who are 16 or 17 years old—at risk of early pregnancy, birth-related complications, domestic abuse and a lifetime trapped in poverty. However, up until 2016, that was the grim prospect facing some girls in this country.
Then-Attorney General Faris Al-Rawi shared information that showed child marriages were a frequent practice in the country, with 3,478 such marriages recorded by the Registrar General between 1996 and 2016. These included 1,156 civil child marriages (Christian and non-Christian), 1,796 Hindu child marriages and 526 Muslim child marriages.
Particularly alarming was that 98 per cent of those unions involved underage brides married off to men up to 52-years-old.
Girls should be protected from such a fate. Instead, they must be educated and empowered to become the successful, productive citizens this country needs.