I wish Amery Browne the best in his new diplomatic life. Though we really met only after he’d grown into one of the brightest, most effective young professionals I’ve encountered, I feel I’ve known him since before he was born, and think I attended his parents’ wedding. I spent much of my childhood at his grandmother’s house, when several of his father’s nine brothers were the main men in my life, taught my sister and me to ride a bicycle, and their dog, Rusty, was responsible for my first dog bite. A man with an incredibly strategic streak, I didn’t always agree with his political choices. But he was a rare PNM politician who never had an issue taking a public position in support of my rights and dignity. I respect him immensely for that.
Moving my column into this slot is the second time recently I’ve been asked to step into Amery’s shoes. He’d recommended me to take over his spot as the sole man on a panel at April’s NGC BocasLitFest on human rights, which took its title from PNM chairman Franklin Khan’s comments about the need for 21st-century thinking on matters of sexuality and gender—part of the festival’s commitment to be a platform for big ideas. The festival organizers, whom I know well, didn’t take me on. They got the Chief Justice instead. As a consequence, I’ve argued, child marriage is poised to become history. There: I’ve written myself into history’s shadows.
Seriously, though, I worry. When—as seems to be a mere matter of drafting—child marriages are outlawed, what becomes of the issues raised by all sides in our unprecedented national conversation these past couple weeks about the sexuality and protection of girls? Across any differences about marriage laws, we all agree that girls’ sexual vulnerability is an enormous problem.
A week ago in these pages, Gabrielle Hosein made the case that what’s at the root and needs to change is how our culture sexualises girls, then shames and blames them for being sexual. But she also pointed to root policy changes decisionmakers must undertake.
Just as marrying girls can’t be taken seriously as clerics’ proposed response to teenage pregnancy or sexual irresponsibility, outlawing child marriage doesn’t carry politicians far enough in meeting their obligation to ensure the rights, protection and sexual autonomy of girls. Amending marriage laws is low-stakes, Hosein argues, with minor political fall-out. I would disagree, reading the torrent of letters to the editor and organisational statements: there’s actually political mileage in it.
What stunned me about Government’s response at the recent Universal Periodic Review to proposals put forward by other states as commitments we should make to improving human rights was—apart from child marriage—we said yes to everything that had to do with women and gender.
Except, that is, for the one recommendation we ensure comprehensive sexuality education.
Seriously? We couldn’t commit to that? So the PNM has not in fact walked back from its rural, early-20th-century thinking that sexual education does not belong in schools, nonsense that fell out of the education minister’s mouth the minute he was sworn in.
Scroll down a few lines, below eliminating child, early and forced marriage, in the Global Sustainable Development Goal targets for gender: you’ll find ensuring universal access to sexual and reproductive health.
Rushing to “harmonize” an increased age of 18 for consent to sex and marriage won’t do young people any good if their parents and political leaders can still deny them access to sexual health information and services until that age. Especially those children who are sexually active, despite the age of consent, and despite their parents. Making 18 the age to consent to everything makes things harder for family planning and ob-gyn providers, who’ve been struggling over the past year that the age of sexual consent has increased with the risk of a $15,000 fine and seven-year jail sentence for serving thousands of young people we know need their services. Harmony may not be their friend.
“How else to protect our nation’s girls but with information about their bodies, health, safety, rights, options and sources of services and support?” Hosein asks. The urgent need to lower barriers, including age, to accurate sex education—for boys as well as girls—is a no-brainer, even for Barbara Burke. What most of us missed in heaping scorn on the Spiritual Baptist archbishop as she made the rounds on the airwaves with the IRO brass, defending the status quo on child marriage, abortion and people languishing in remand, was when she said, with all her matriarchal Laventille pedigree: “What I believe should be the government approach now is getting into the primary school and teaching them—family life, sex. And we wouldn’t have all this problem. Teach them family life, what age…” And Hema cut her off.