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Friday, June 16, 2017

An historic victory was won last week when child marriage was pro­hibited by amendments to the marriage laws of T&T.

This was a victory for the women’s movement, support­ed by male allies and working across race, class and religion, despite how fraught that can be.

I was relieved both PNM and UNC MPs voted for an amended law. I was sorry the change failed to happen under Kamla Per­sad-Bissessar as early as 2010.

The call first came from the Hindu Women’s Organisation (HWO) more than six years ago. Organisations such as the IGDS and FPATT became involved by 2013.

Lobbying expanded over the last two years, as a coalition of civil society organizations, including Womantra, Caiso, the Network of NGOs of TT for the Advancement of Women, the Association of Female Ex­ecutives of T&To (AFETT), the YMCA, Cafra and more, was brought together by Folade Mu­tota and Winad.

It was discriminatory for girls to be marriageable earlier than boys.

There was no contemporary reason for this other than girls’ sexual vulnerability at a younger age.

The solution isn’t marriage, it’s transforming such vulnera­bility to older male sexual pre­dation.

That this was overwhelmingly an issue affecting adolescent girls points squarely to how gender inequality leads to denial of full self-determination at a much younger age for girls than boys.

The majority of these marriag­es were between girls under 16, and boys and men who were, at times, much older.

This is not the Ram and Sita or Romeo and Juliet story of two teen secret lovers nor of their unwed adolescent sexual experi­mentation, nor of family protec­tion of two secondary students supported to finish both this and tertiary schooling.

Largely working class girls, perhaps with limited educa­tional support or options, and definitely limited prospects for occupational advancement, were experiencing the greatest vul­nerability to early sexual initia­tion by adult men, who usually also had low educational or oc­cupational achievement.

Marriage may have seemed like a secure economic option because an older man promised to look after them.

Perhaps, they were seduced by a feeling of adulthood that sexual relationships bring. May­be they were in love or escaping oppressive and insecure family conditions, or they got pregnant and marriage seemed the next step.

It’s likely they didn’t have a clue about the compromises, conflicts and responsibilities that come with partnership with a hardback man.

Rather than “the destruction of family life”, what was de­stroyed was the legal access of adult men to teen girls. This was necessary if we recognise how gender, religion and class une­qually impacted thousands from lower-income families.

There were recommendations that teenagers over 16, but with­in three years of age, be allowed to marry. Such an exception had merit.

That the exception was un­fortunately excluded from the legislation is a complicated story about the AG vs the HWO and the coalition.

What happens to the babies of unwed mothers? Families and partners can still love and support them such that teenage girls finish schooling, can secure their own income and can decide what they want out of their lives. A change to the marriage law in no way affects this.

If lack of respectability asso­ciated with unwed pregnancy is a major fear, then the solution is to give girls knowledge, support and access to contraception.

Adult hypocrisy, rather than “strict family values”, is at stake here for no one wants girls to have sex, whether by choice and desire or by grooming and pre­dation, without the threat and likelihood of dire consequences. So no one wants to prepare them to protect themselves if they do.

When they are made preg­nant, everyone can treat them as if they are responsible for the shame. The solution can’t be marriage to the same adult man who didn’t know or care enough to use condoms or protect a teenage girl’s future freedom in the first place.

Too early pregnancy isn’t a more important issue than too early marriage. Like child sexual abuse, they are consequences of adult failures to acknowledge girls’ sexual vulnerability and empower even poor girls to se­cure better options.

If we care as much as we say, all the other work must now gain momentum.


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