|Young girls studying.|
It’s a good sign when there is open discussion on any subject because it allows the ventilation of opinion in a free marketplace of ideas.
But what I was reading and hearing on this issue was neither a measured debate nor one based on available statistical data about the social problems we face as a nation with such related issues as sexual activity among teens and teenage pregnancies. It seemed that there was just one agenda – to bash one group.
The focus was on child marriages and the need to amend the Marriage Act to end the practice. However, according to available statistics, this is not prevalent and hardly an issue to attract such attention. Nevertheless it elicited strong emotions, some which bordered on hate and religious bigotry.
There were other current issues such as the parliamentary debate on the SSA amendments, the runaway crime problem and an economic crisis that seemed to be growing worse. But the conversation was on that one issue.
And then it dawned on me that this might have been a well-orchestrated political distraction – a red herring designed to mislead or distract from other important issues. Those who created the distraction skillfully manipulated the discussion in a direction to suit their agenda.
It was instructive as well to note that much of the hate was directed at Hindus and to a lesser extent Muslims, but none against other religious sects when in fact ALL religions are allowed by law to have parental consent for marriages of children under the age of consent.
The act, dating back to 1923 and updated over the years up to 1996 allows girls under the age of 18 to marry so long as they have the consent of parents or guardians.
Critics called marriage of underage girls "legalised statutory rape” but few of them saw the flip side of the coin – the real social problem we face today with teenage pregnancy, the lack of sexual education in our schools, the influence of imported North American mass culture and our own Carnival culture in which our adults and role models display the most lewd behaviour in public, often with children.
And only a few people focused on the problem of child abuse and society’s failure to protect our children.
A recent report from The Children’s Authority of T&T stated that it is managing 4,158 cases of children in need of care and protection in just nine months of operations. That’s an average of 15 a day, the highest number of cases to be reported in the country’s history.
Much of the abuse was happening in homes with the victims being at the mercy of parents, relatives and caregivers. The shocking story of two girls aged 9 and 14 found naked in a vehicle with a half dressed adult male is one glaring example of the horror that children face daily.
By comparison statistics for child marriages for the past five years, including 2016, show 312 such marriages among the Christian, Muslim and Hindu communities. That’s an average of 5 per month, which is hardly a crisis or cause for alarm.
What it shows is that the highly emotionally charged debate was about something that was not a serious national problem but was a good diversion from current national issues.
The last amendment was 20 years ago and until now, no one since has touched the act or complained about the age of consent, which was there since 1923. And while much of the venom was focused on the Hindu community, 74 of those 312 - or 24 per cent – were Christian marriages.
A marriage by consent of the parties and their respective parents or guardians is not comparable with intentional abuse of children but few commentators were making that point, ignoring the real abuse.
The Children’s Protection Unit of the Police Service reported that 358 cases of child abuse are currently before the courts arising out of 1,709 reports between May last year and February 2016. But people weren’t talking about that.
That raises the question of which of these social issues is of greater concern and which puts children at greater risk. Why aren’t we discussing child abuse in the context of what’s happening in homes and schools?
While there is a valid reason for everyone to be concerned about a law that allows us to marry our children while they are still classified as “child” we must acknowledge that many of our children between the age of 12 and 14 are engaged in sexual activity, technically engaging in “statutory rape by consent”.
And many of our innocent children are abused by elders and trusted people, even those who are considered role models and community leaders.
So why are we spending so much time and devoting so much attention to an issue that is almost totally absent and shutting our eyes to the social epidemic ravaging our country and destroying the lives of so many young women?
Why aren’t we angry and horrified at the news that a 12 old child gave birth in one of our hospitals and police investigations point to a cover up by the family of that child? Why aren’t we angry that to date no one has been held accountable?
Medical Chief of Staff at the Mt Hope Women’s Hospital Dr. Karen Sohan was quoted in a recent newspaper report as saying that 74 girls under the age of 16 gave birth at that hospital last year. Perhaps some of them were legally married but we are not hearing from people who are angry about that?
Here is questions all of us need to answer. Why are we OK with teenage sex but opposed to teenage marriage? Why are we prepared to change the law to criminalise parents who marry their under age daughters who might be sexually active but don’t seem to have a problem with our children engaging in early sexual activity and careless sexual practices?
Why are all our leaders – religious and secular – so reluctant to introduce sexual education in our schools, which have become the incubators for the sexual promiscuity that seems to have taken prominence among our teenagers?
We are failing our children and instead of looking for solutions we have selected a red herring. I would guess that everyone is in favour of changing the laws, except a few who continue to cling to archaic cultural traditions, so we are looking in the wrong direction.
Yes child marriages are wrong in today's society. That is the consensus.
Read this UNICEF report on child marriages http://data.unicef.org/child-protection/child-marriage.html
The opposition has said so and the government is pushing the conversation in that direction. Prime Minister Keith Rowley has urged our young people to speak out on the issue but he has not spoken to them about lifestyle choices that are leading to the decadence we face.
Today he is very vocal on the issue, but he himself boasted that wining on a 17 year old girl in a Carnival band was not an issue and that those who felt he stepped out of line as a national leader should “get a life”. He reminded everyone that he was just participating in the national culture.
Those who defended him then are the very ones today making a mountain out of the child marriage molehill and avoiding the real problem of child abuse.
It’s very easy to fix the child marriage issue. Stop talking, write the amendment, and take it to the parliament where it will get unanimous approval.
But that would end the discussion but that's not why the talk started in the first place.
It’s much more difficult to address the underlying problem of teen sexuality and the absence of a structure for children who need help. That is the real challenge and that is the conversation we should be having.
Jai Parasram | 25 May 2016