|Opposition Leader Kamla Persad-Bissessar (Photo Ralph Deonarine)|
Speaking at a media briefing at her office in Port of Spain, the Opposition Leader said, “Our very clear position is that it must not be allowed by law; it must not be seen as right or permissible by society and whether by tradition or circumstance, must not be allowed to continue.”
A national debate has sprung up over the issue on social media with some heated exchanges bordering on hate and religious bigotry. The current law allows Hindu and Muslim parents to give consent for the marriage of girls who are as young as 12 in the Muslim community and 14 among Hindus.
Recently, the Inter Religious Organisation (IRO) said it unanimously agreed to ask the state not to interfere with the rules that were established in the late 1940s when cultural norms were different from what they are today.
While few child marriages are taking place today the issue has found itself on the national agenda with strong opinions on both sides of the debate.
The Archbishop of Port of Spain, who distanced himself from the position taken by the IRO, called it “legalised statutory rape” and insisted that neither he nor a representative of the church was present at the IRO meeting that approved the resolution.
On Friday Mrs Persad-Bissessar was emphatic that she and her party do not support child marriages. She said the opposition is against child marriage and it is committed to continue the process of ending the practice.
“In an enlightened society a person must be given the opportunity to exercise freedom of choice. However, condoning marriages at the ages of 12 and 14 does not appear to be in the interest of a child,” she said.
“We must be careful that cultural traditions do not take priority over human dignity and legislative law but more so, human dignity.”
The Opposition Leader reminded the media that as Prime Minister and Chair of the Commonwealth she championed the cause of women and girls and her position today is the same that she adopted as the leader of government.
“We actively supported and signed on to a resolution to “improve gender equality and the empowerment of women in the Commonwealth”, she stated. “The joint statement was clear: None of the Commonwealth’s democratic or development goals can be achieved without first empowering its girls and women, who represent more than half of the Commonwealth’s two billion people.”
She said the government she led adopted the position that "early and forced marriage is one of the most significant barriers to girls’ education, maternal health, female economic empowerment and the realisation of basic, fundamental human rights.”
Mrs Persad-Bissessar noted she established a specific ministry of Gender Affairs (which has now been disbanded) to deal with issues relating to gender equality. In addition she established the Children’s Authority, which remains understaffed.
“The government must make it a priority to ensure that the Children’s Authority is provided with the resources it requires to protect our children,” she said.
Speaking about the social influence the former prime minister said society has “long moved away from child marriages as it has evolved from many other traditions." She said the reality today is that many of the traditions of the past are now irrelevant and added, "We must be brave enough to do what is right and in this case what is right is to revise the marriage age upwards."
READ THE FULL STATEMENT: http://unctt.org/statement-by-leader-of-the-opposition-on-ending-child-marriages/