“If you educate your girls you will have everything in the future” were the words issued by Theresa Kachindamoto, senior chief in the Dedza District in Central Malawi. Theresa successfully annulled 850 child marriages in Malawi in the past three years, saving girls as young as twelve years old from a life of destitution and unfulfilled opportunities for advancement. Indeed, a society needs educated, empowered women at its helm, involved in the running of the country’s affairs.
According the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), across the world, as many as 14.2 million girls will marry before becoming adults annually. In developing countries, one in every three girls is married before reaching the age of 18. In Latin America and the Caribbean Region, 18 per cent of girls 15-19 were married or in an informal union. Here, young boys and girls are still being subjected to marriage, accepted by marriage laws bound in archaic religious principles.
Trinidad and Tobago and Guyana have been highlighted as the countries where child marriages are most manifested in the Caribbean. Although the legal marriage age is 18 in Trinidad and Tobago, the Marriage Act allows for exemptions on religious grounds. There are four Acts in Trinidad and Tobago which govern marriage, and are all adapted to suit particularly religious practices, namely Muslim, Christian, Hindu and Orisha.
These allowances have seen 747 brides and 15 bridegrooms under the age of 18 between 2005 and 2009, according to the Central Statistical Office of Trinidad and Tobago (2013), violating their human rights and endangering their future development. Furthermore, young girls are disproportionately affected by this situation compared to their male companions.
The quandary lies in the reality that Trinidad and Tobago is a highly multicultural state, where many creeds exist. Each religion carries with it opposing views and these conflicting religious perspectives seem to be acting as a divisive tool on the road toward consensus on the issue.
For instance, despite popular calls for amendments to the Marriage Act to prevent child marriage, Secretary-General of Trinidad and Tobago’s leading Hindu organisation, the Sanatan Dharma Maha Sabha, Sat Maharaj, is holding on to the view that “Government has no business in the bedroom affairs of families,” and has publicly insulted the Archbishop of Port-of-Spain telling him to “go to hell,” for stating that child marriage is “legalised statutory rape.” While some religious bodies support the proposed initiative by the Government to review the law and make adjustments to fit the legal age of consent and adulthood in Trinidad and Tobago, others are holding on tightly to religious and cultural tenets which are obstructing the elevation of girls and boys.
In a local news release in Trinidad and Tobago, the story of Maria Jadoo-Villafana tugs at the heartstrings. While most young girls were busy playing with friends and developing their sense of self at the age of five, Maria was meeting her future husband, whom she married at the age of nine. Maria endured her first pregnancy at the age of eleven, which would be her first of twenty-five.
Real stories like these illustrate the tragedy that befalls young girls who are forced into marriage. Child brides are victims of countries that have yet to develop a gender-sensitive approach to dealing with social issues.
In the past, child marriages under the Hindu faith took place largely due to cultural traditions such as the “dowry,” which is very much a status symbol. However, in 2016, women are supporting their families through their own means and without dependency on a husband. Female tertiary participation rates are higher than males in the Caribbean. In 2006, women in the Caribbean island of Anguilla registered 83% of tertiary enrolment. Why then, would states allow continuance of Marriage Acts that hinder further advancement of women in society?
Marriage takes responsibility, resources, and is a commitment that must be entered into only when two people are mentally and physically mature enough to go through the journey. Children who are married are unable to achieve further education and find themselves in poverty. Furthermore, medical Chief of Staff of the Mt Hope Women’s Hospital, Dr Karen Sohan has stated that in 2015, “74 girls under the age of 16” gave birth at the hospital. Child marriage perpetuates the statistics of teenage pregnancies and in most cases these girls fall out of the school system. Depriving children of their innocence and inflicting them with the burdens of marriage and the duties that belong in adulthood is counterproductive to the development of any society.
Allowing children to marry is entering the sphere of peodophilia in the form of marriage. Many child brides spend their lives being physically and sexually abused by older men. According to Attorney General Faris Al Wari, “Daddy, 24, and mummy, 12. It is statutory rape. The evidence is there, but society turns a blind eye it.”
Now, it is time to turn the spotlight on this evidence so as to create a holistic picture.
The very existence of this abhorrent legal form of sexual debauchery makes child marriage a crime against humanity, one that needs to be prohibited and intensely denounced by society and religious leaders.
It is commendable that the women of the Hindu Women’s Organisation in Trinidad and Tobago have come out and are calling for change with their online petition, standing against the oppressive patriarchal system. Similarly, the National Muslim Women’s Organisation of Trinidad and Tobago have taken up a position against its President’s favouring child marriages, stating that “Our aim is the protection of the rights of the child. In today’s world children under the age of eighteen (18) are generally not prepared to assume the responsibilities of marriage. “
This is the type of revolutionary thinking needed from within. In addition, the public debate is leaning in a positive direction. Folade Mutota, Executive Director of the Women’s Institute for Alternative Development (WINAD) stated that ,“Civil society is deeply heartened by the growing recognition of the importance to our national development of protecting young people, girls in particular, from sexual violence and stand ready to partner with Government to achieve implementation of new and amended laws by the end of 2016.”
If there are to be more female scholars, musicians, and sportswomen leading progress in Caribbean society, then girls need to be free to experience childhood and their teenage years. It is now up to Governments to make the move to give our young people the chance to gain education and increase their chances of thriving. Legislation and programmes to end child marriage as well as the promotion of investments in female empowerment through information is needed. Protecting our girls will alleviate threats to girls’ lives and health, and improve their future prospects.