The issue is that of Child Marriage, and the current position where it is permitted by law for children to be married at from the age of 12 years old.
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.
Members of the media may recall the Administration that I led, in 2011 at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Australia, supported robust attempts to end child marriage.
We actively supported and signed on to a resolution to “improve gender equality and the empowerment of women in the Commonwealth”.
Leaders, including myself as Chair in office of the Commonwealth of Nations resolved to give “due consideration to the domestic legislation of member countries,” in order to “address the issue of early and forced marriage and consider actions to support the rights of women and children and to share its best practices to promote the implementation of measures to tackle early and forced marriage.”
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.”
The position I held and adopted as the Trinidad & Tobago position was:
“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,”…
“The people, civil society, are saying to us that to have a truly functional democracy we must address, inter alia… the equality of women,”
“This is why I promoted the cause during my tenure in office, and this is, why in my country I created a Ministry of Gender, Youth and Child Development which is at this point in time, examining the issue of changing our laws with respect to child marriages.”
I directed that steps be taken by the relevant Ministries to bring an end to child marriages.
This was just one of the initiatives my government took to protect and empower our children.
Towards this end I established a Child Protection Task Force which brought into effect and operation, the Children’s Authority and the Child Protection Unit.
Work haD begun in this regard during our term in office.
It was then, and remains our view today that for us to have a truly functional democracy, issues of equality of girls and women must be addressed.
This was a great part of the reason for the formation of the Ministry of Gender, Youth and Child Development.
The Ministry then was charged, in part, with the responsibility of examining the issue of changing our laws with respect to child marriages.
Today, despite this Ministry having been disbanded, and its functions split and placed under different Ministries, our position stands with the same belief and with even greater commitment.
You will note that the conversation has returned to the top of the national agenda; and we believe it is an opportune time to renew our commitment to working with people and stakeholders with the goal of ending child marriage.
As the Parliamentary Opposition and Representative of the people-issues affecting the nation, it is our intention to renew the process of consultation to ensure that this position becomes adopted by us not only as a social position, but also as a position supported by statute.
As you will recall we commenced this process as the Government, and because it is an issue that so deeply affects large sections of the national community, we appreciated that a great deal of effort, detail and listening had to take place.
The Opposition therefore formally renews its position against child marriage, and renews its commitment to continue the process of ending this practice.
The issue of ending is not sufficient in itself to protect and empower our children.
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.
There must be no accommodation for statutory rape and we must enact and enforce laws against having sex under the age of 18.
This week makes one year since the Children’s Authority came into operation and while they have done a tremendous job in protecting our children, they lamented the fact that they continue to be under-resourced.
Their Chairman is reported as indicating that they are presently operating on only 50% of the required staff.
The role of a parent is to guide a child through childhood, adolescence and into adulthood.
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. The general opinion suggests that 18 appear to be a more reasonable age (UN Convention).
We must be careful that cultural traditions do not take priority over human dignity and legislative law but more so, human dignity.
There is enough evidence to show the consequences of child marriages especially as it relates to maternal deaths, infant health, fertility outcomes and even violence.
The evolving mind of our society must embrace a higher level of maturity and thinking with respect to this issue.
The generality of the society has long moved away from child marriages as it has evolved from many other traditions which at one point in time may have found relevance and support but which in a more egalitarian society are now deemed irrelevant. We must be brave enough to do what is right and in this case what is right is to revise the marriage age upwards.
As we do so, we must examine the now too frequent cases of teen pregnancies of young men fathering children and evading responsibility as well as levels of sexual promiscuity that need to be examined. That aside, I am in support of the revision upward of the age for marriages.