For many young people, legislation that makes provisions for child marriage in Trinidad and Tobago is quite new to their understanding. This is highly possible in a society that prides itself as the quasi-New York City of the Caribbean with infrastructure and development goals but has a popular adage to promote multi-ethnic and cultural harmony that goes “Do not talk religion and politics.” What this does is suppress public discourse, restrict knowledge sharing and understanding of the diversity of human life in T&T and ultimately leave religious and political authorities unchecked.
Before Brother Harrypersad Maharaj’s laughable and grotesque remarks on child marriage was a body of activists, lone voices and soldiers in the women’s movement collecting data, publicly consulting and petitioning politicians to take action to end it. Picture Amrika Tiwary in the 1990s; Brenda Goopesingh distributing booklets “Hinduism – An Overview and Rejecting Violence Against Women” (2011); Verna St.Rose-Greaves getting the facts and telling a nation that this trend needs to stop; and Helen Drayton from an independent bench drafting child protection laws. Picture the faces of these women who have raised this issue when people thought there were “bigger fish to fry.”
Why is this issue so important now? Again, we are dejectedly thankful for prejudice’s ugly head finding its way into the media. The Inter Religious Organisation of Trinidad and Tobago have infuriated the public with their recent (contested) “unanimous” decision on their support for the furtherance of child marriage in our Republic. (Interestingly, their views on abortion and the criminal justice system have undergone less/no scrutiny). What is clear by the statements of the religious leaders who advocate child marriage or urge people to recognize the “pros” of child marriage is that a lot of it stems from a respectability politics, anxiety around shame brought on to the family in the cases of teenage pregnancy and the out right (and typical) girl-blaming.
Now…there is that moment when you think that your relative, Aunty, Uncle may be the most backward person on the island…and then there is this…
On a morning television interview with Hema Ramkisson, the IRO defended their positions on child marriage by basically not discuss the protection of the child and defending their cultural power as religious bodies in national affairs.
Brother Harrypersad Maharaj
“We know what the society is today. If a young person under the age of eighteen for example should get pregnant then they have the option, because they can’t commit divorce, what do you want them to do then? They can’t divorce. They don’t have an option of marriage which is “parental support”. What will that young person do…commit suicide? “
(What is it with this suicide talk?)
Imam Haji Afzal Mohammed
First Vice President, IRO
“The bigger issue is…according to the report, that last year 1,300 girl children became pregnant. Did they get married? Were they married? What are we going to do? According to the law it not permissible to have an abortion. If they reach that stage, what will happen? Suicide!”
(You again with this suicide talk. Maybe you should have read the CARICOM Council for Human and Social Development Strategic Plan that addresses the reduction of the adolescent pregnancies for the region.)
Archbishop Barbara Gray-Burke
Spiritual Baptist Representative, IRO
“Are we going to go secular? We look at the countries that give rise to same-sex marriage, how it being destroyed? So better spirituality stay in our country than we move over to secular…A move is on now to destroy the religious bodies.”
(Clearly there have been protests outside of churches, mosques, temples and places of worship…I could not make this $hit up!)
“Let us face the facts, we have unemployment, with the unemployment poverty is going to step in. If the African community dig in more in family life we would not have so much young women, single parents, only shacking up, shacking up and getting children.”
(Maybe they like Parang music? Chac Chac anyone? This was ridiculous.)
I must state categorically that it is counterproductive to share the “my religion is better than yours” trope on Facebook in light the dissenting religious voices such as Archbishop Harris of the Roman Catholic Church, the leadership in the Anglican Church, et al. who have challenged the prepotency and weird logic of the IRO on this matter. Our focus at this time, however, should be on challenging the political endowment of religion and the clout they have in shaping state policy. The alarming silence of State leadership, ruling-party and opposition, perhaps is an indicator of the tied-hands many have in this matter of political calculation and constituency…I’m sorry, I meant human rights : )
The subtext of child marriage is the oppression of children and girls. For this reason, target our energies on the institutions of the State and not the arbiters of sin. The four (4) marriage acts of this land that run contrary to the aims of the Sexual Offences Act, Conventions on the Child and CEDAW will be transformed in parliament and no where else. We could school the stupid on Facebook but we must advocate, agitate and petition for new legislation in parliament. Culture is not the hiding place for oppression. We need greater harmony across legislation to protect our children if we want greater harmony in our society.
1. Hindu Women’s Organisation – Petition to Amend the Marriage Acts of Trinidad and Tobago:
2. “We’ve dealt with girls’ greater vulnerability to early sexual initiation by denial of the importance of sexual education through our school system. How else to protect our nation’s girls but with information about their bodies, health, safety, rights, options and sources of services and support? Learning how to make and live those decisions best for your future as a growing girl is a better solution to teen pregnancy than marriage.” – Dr. Gabrielle Hosein
3. “Is it Better for Girls to Marry? Who Decides?” public forum hosted by the Institute for Gender and Development Studies, U.W.I, St. Augustine, 2011.
1. CNC3Television1. 2016. “IRO members defend child marriages.” YouTube Video, published May 19, 2016. Accessed May 20, 2015. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3Edfgrlnnog
2. Art work on cover by James Hackett.