January 2017

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We have been here before, said Dr Gabrielle Hosein. The head of the Institute for Gender and Development Studies (IGDS) was speaking at a public forum on the Marriage Acts in Trinidad and Tobago under the theme, “Too Young To Wed.”

Chairing the forum in October 2016, she told the audience that five years ago, the IGDS had broached the subject at another forum to discuss the Marriage Acts in Trinidad and Tobago, “Is it better for girls to marry? Who decides?” (the video broadcast is available on the IGDS YouTube page). Not much progress has been made since. This time, the IGDS had joined with the Coalition to End Child Marriage in Trinidad and Tobago to discuss this contentious subject.

Statistics released by the Ministry of the Attorney General show that 569 under-aged girls were married from 2006 to 2016. Child marriages continue to be a global problem, with world leaders like US First Lady, Michelle Obama, and UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki Moon commemorating the International Day of the Girl Child to highlight the need to expand girls’ education in keeping with the theme that Girls’ Progress equals Goals’ Progress.

Advocates against child marriage in Trinidad and Tobago are trying to have the legal age for marriage in all the Marriage Acts raised to 18, and to have more access to sexual help services for those between the ages of 16 to 18 since the country’s legal age of consent was raised from age 16 to 18 in May 2015.

Panelists addressed these issues with a full audience at the Institute of International Relations, starting with Folade Mutota, Director of the Women’s Institute for Alternative Development representing the Coalition to End Child Marriage in T&T. She spoke on the higher age of eligibility for males than females across the Acts and the Coalition’s role (they comprise over 20 NGOs and have been partnering since 2016) to end child marriage and protect children through legislation and policies.

Dona Da Costa-Martinez presented (FPATT) - Family Planning Association of Trinidad & Tobago perspective on the age of sexual consent and the implications for sexual and reproductive health. She reiterated the discordance between the country’s marriage laws which allow parents to enter their children into marriage from the age of 12 for girls and 14 for boys and the country’s raising of the legal age of sexual consent from 16 to 18 in 2015.

Raising the age of consent actually prevents sexually active teenagers from approaching FPATT for sexual reproductive services. Additionally, the Sexual Offences Act criminalises persons such as teachers, doctors, lawyers if they offer those services to persons under the age of sexual consent. Current data about child marriages does not identify whether young girls were married to adult males, which would be considered a sexual offence. According to the Medical Chief of Staff, 74 girls under the age of 16 gave birth in 2015. Da Costa-Martinez called for not just legislative change, but also a cross-sectional approach.

President of the Hindu Women’s Organisation (HWO), Brenda Gopeesingh said that Hindu pundits who are against raising the marriageable age across the Marriage Acts do not speak for HWO, and they have been fighting for change since 2011. The HWO’s research on the ill effects of teenage pregnancy and the impact of early marriage on the health and education of teenage girls have been documented in their publication: “16 Days of Activism 2014: November 25 to December 10: Campaigning for Change of the Marriage Acts of Trinidad and Tobago & Policy Statements on Gays, Rights Abortion & HIV/AIDS.” Rounding up the panel discussion was Khadija Sinanan, Co-Director of WOMANTRA, who spoke at length on the myths surrounding child marriage. She started by dispelling the notion that only Hindu and Orisha marriages include the marriage of minors due to widespread media coverage of these groups. However, she said, all four Acts, including the Civil and Christian Acts have the minimum age of marriage below 18 years. She stated child marriages are a contemporary problem citing 51 marriages that occurred in 2014 and 10 in 2015. Like the others, Sinanan emphasised the need for the law to be changed since it violates the rights, education, health and opportunities of young girls and exposes them to violence and traps them in a cycle of poverty. Additionally, child marriage is a driver of early pregnancy, which leads to birth-related complications, often resulting in low mortality rates in young mothers in lower and middle income countries.

In the Q&A session, other NGO representatives in the agreed that changes must be made to the child marriage legislation, and that sex education should be included in the school curriculum.

To add your voice in the fight to change the Marriage Acts of Trinidad and Tobago use the following hashtags across social media platforms: #ChildMarriageisChildAbuse, #MakeChildMarriageIllegal, #AmendtheMarriageLaws.

For more information about the Coalition to End Child Marriage in T&T, IGDS and more, please visit the IGDS website at http://sta.uwi.edu/igds/

Jeanette G. Awai is a freelance writer and a a Marketing and Communications Assistant at the Marketing and Communications Office, The UWI St Augustine