What exactly proved the tipping point for child marriage laws last week?
I’ve long challenged the applicability of rational models we’re taught in public policy and government courses to Africa or the Caribbean, where the magical realism of literature is often a feature of everyday life. Nigerian writers, UWI literature professor Funso Aiyejina jokes, don’t need imagination. What happens in T&T politics, however, even writers can’t make up.
Nonetheless, activists with limited resources, in a place where so much needs to change—including what we’re taught as education—need to know why change happens, so we invest effort in what makes a difference, not meaningless ritual, like so much of what happens in our public service.
The provisions (dating back in law to at least 1881) for marrying minors, retained in our current Hindu and Muslim acts, a 2013 United Nations poll revealed are opposed by modern Trinbagonians two to one, including just half of Hindus and Muslims. That’s a smaller number than the same poll showed oppose discrimination against homosexuals. So why did a new PNM government, which hasn’t enacted Equal Opportunity protections for gays the Commission keeps reminding it recommended two years ago, suddenly say it will change the marriage laws? Days after reading a prepared statement to the United Nations Human Rights Council defending not changing laws we admitted in 2012 were human rights issues—because multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multi-cultural states cannot alter existing legislation that reflects traditional norms and values arbitrarily or willy-nilly, without extensive and inclusive consultation, which continues. It didn’t seem it was the weight of Algeria, Botswana, Chile, Paraguay, Sierra Leone and Slovenia all raising the issue, 82 states that backed two Council resolutions since our 2012 review, a General Assembly resolution that didn’t need a vote, or that ending child marriage is now a UN Sustainable Development Goal.
Was the only barrier to changing the laws a female leader who owed her anointment to a Hindu patriarch? That same leader last week encouraged the current government to be brave on the issue. (Her legacy on child marriage is a landmark child protection law that, in section 26, makes it unquestionably legal to sexually consummate a marriage to a child of any age.) Her gender minister, who’s made public comments she was instructed to preserve child marriage in law, howled; I thought it was a rare moment of Kamla’s honesty.
Was it that all the work had already been done by Brenda Gopeesingh and other Hindu women, or Verna, in her brief year in office, to prime the political space for last week? Did the issue just need to get raised once post-Partnership?
A scientist is now PM? Fellow geologist Patrick Manning infused faith into governance in uniquely troubling ways—though there’s a deliberately rational flair to many Rowley administration moves. Perhaps something more mature is happening in our democracy. Women march: a slutshaming mayor resigns. Drivers petition: Government takes heed speed limit enforcement might require raising it?
Prevailing theory about Jack Warner and governance was any issue Jack highlighted was a sure distraction from something else sinister. Phillip Alexander proposed last week the relentless focus on child marriage was a PNM conspiracy by Rhoda Bharath, Timothy Teemal, who started a petition on the issue a year ago, and a newspaper editor, to distract from government failures. I howled.
The smartest explanation on my Facebook wall was “the media’s artful ability to magnify a foolish quote”, a reference to InterReligious Organisation head Harrypersad Maharaj’s comments that girlchildren’s age has nothing to do with maturity, easily paraphrased as “After 12 is lunch”. Was this the own-goal by the IRO’s conservatives what won the match? Harry has a knack for being dismissed even when he’s being enlightened. I loved him when he spoke up bravely in defence of the rights of LGBTI people—only to be called a hijra, and a yoga practitioner, not a real cleric.
Or was it their transparent conspiracy to manipulate mainline Christian groups into a “unanimous” position against changing any laws about religion. An imaginary fear that led Baptist Archbishop Barbara Burke to sell off Hindu and Muslim girls so she wouldn’t have to marry Hilda and Doris—something no church has been forced to in 22 countries with same-sex marriage. Church after church denounced the position, the Catholics calling it legalized statutory rape. The optics of Maharaj, Burke and ASJA’s Abzal Mohammed on the CNews set were a sepia portrait of the past.
Muslim Women’s Organization president Raziah Ahmed, who’s served as both gender minister and acting President of T&T, helped dig the hole. One of the best election soundbites of 2015 was the San Fernando West candidate saying while Faris Al Rawi might have the brawn, she had the belly. That belly was nowhere in evidence as she called changing the laws a distraction and cited constitutional religious freedoms. Can local jihadists do the same?
Will the IRO survive this schism, and is its self-destruction good for all of us? My theory is that the domino in all this was the Chief Justice’s front-page remarks in April at the BocasLitFest, asking whether we’re a secular democracy or a theocracy, and citing child marriage. They are what got Bro. Harry’s dhoti in a twist.
But maybe it was nothing in particular and everything at once. Increasingly in theorising 2011’s so-called Arab Spring of political activism or violent protests across English cities, thinkers note such “irruptions” are not at all linear. Maybe we should just push hard so we get to the other side of this. And see just how much brawn the AG in fact has.