Trinidad’s parliament has outlawed child marriages, with most of the 41 members of the Assembly voting to fix the legal age of matrimony at 18.
The issue has been a hot topic for debate in a country with a sizable Hindu and Muslim population and a tradition dating back to the colonial era that had allowed children as young as 12 to be legally wed and allowed to start families rather than being permitted to experience childhood, schooling and other opportunities.
The vote by 35 lawmakers represents a major blow to the Sanatan Dharma Maha Sabha, the major Hindu organization in the country of 1.3 million, which had been fighting to maintain the right for children to marry in keeping with Eastern traditions.
Prime Minister Keith Rowley said parliament has intervened to protect children who do not have a voice and end up being dominated in what he said were lopsided marriages that sometimes ended in tragedy or sorrow for child brides.
“To oppose it is not disrespecting the ancestors,” Rowley said as debate raged late into Friday night, adding that local laws give no man the right to have an underage wife. “The status quo [that is child-marriage] may have one or two cases of success, but it is largely horror stories. If in a future time there are those who can reverse it, then reverse it. But now, we intervene and we speak for those who cannot speak for themselves.”
The main Indo-dominated opposition United National Congress, which had in the past supported the Maha Sabha on the issue voted along with government legislators to pass the bill and promptly won praise from the floor.
Leader Sat Maharaj said this week that the issue will likely be tested in court as government had no right determining what age is good for marriage and who should have sexual relations with whom. Attorney General Faris Al-Rawi has vowed that the state will appeal any move to the courts as he acknowledged the right of the organization to so do.
“The state is inviting itself in the bedrooms of the population,” said Maharaj. “The state could find itself in court. Once we start at the official stage, we will go straight up to the Privy Council.”
The Privy Council the British court of appeal that is still the island’s court of final arbitration.
Maharaj continued, “The organization is weighing the possibilities of taking legal action against the state. The state should not be making decisions for families and the destruction of family life. What has happened is the destruction of family life.”
Al-Rawi argued that an underage girl is legally barred from even buying a SIM card for a mobile phone, cannot get a driver’s license but is allowed to wed and have sex. He said most of those marriages are to gardeners, hucksters and others from the lower classes in society who could barely make an economic success of the union.
“It is time child marriages come to an end in this country,” said Al-Rawi. “The Hindu Marriage Act allows girls to marry 18-year-olds. Eighteen-year-olds are men. I can’t deal with the concept of that form of gender discrimination.”