Trinidad and Tobago (T&T) is ablaze with anger and a sleeping giant has awoken. The Inter Religious Organization (IRO) voted 17 to 24 in favor of keeping an old colonial law allowing child marriage of girls as young as 12 years old.
Almost immediately, social media erupted and the IRO were condemned. Petitions are picking up speed to end the practice. The YWCA and WOMANTRA have come out against it. Even several churches have joined the outcry. However, the IRO and their few supporters have dug their heels in, insisting that tradition be respected. This has only served to pour gasoline on the flames.
The combustible material that made this possible was the tragic reality that Trinidad and Tobago, an island of just 1.3 million, has staggering child sexual abuse rates. There are several reports that the rates of HIV among teenage girls had increased. This April the T&T Guardian reported that a 12-year-old girl gave birth to a boy at the San Fernando General Hospital. This would be followed by this report from the Medical Chief of Staff at the Mt Hope Women's Hospital Dr Karen Sohan informing the public that 74 girls under the age of 16, gave birth at the hospital last year and then came the IRO with their rousing support of marrying off underage girls to the older teens and young men who impregnate them. Even now, in the midst of the furor, comes news of an older married man arrested, allegedly with a 9- and 14-year-old in his car, apparent victims of drugging and sexual assault.
A similar pattern exists all over the Caribbean. It is an epidemic! It does not know color, creed, religion or class.
While some islands are doing PSAs to tackle the problem, others have had their head buried in the sand for a long time, focusing on slippery slope, unproven threats to children both boys and girls, from the openly gay neighbor down the street instead of the far more statistically likely, married, father, older brother, uncle or school teacher or other boyfriend, the man everybody knows as a "respectable man in the community". This distraction is something the religious community is also complicit in encouraging, instead of sharing actual evidence-based information on the real profile of child molesters and the real red flags because that does not suit their agenda.
For too long the society has allowed religious organizations to oppose comprehensive sex education which is often the first step in "predator-proofing" children by teaching them what their private parts are and who is allowed to touch them and what to do if any adult touches them in a bad way and let them know it is safe to tell on adults who do. This is not something that cannot be left up to the parents, many of whom are steeped in misinformation and are often complicit in allowing the abuse, due to financial dependency on the abuser, fear of stigma and horrible advice from certain religious organizations who often discourage reporting incidents to the police. For too long the society has engaged in victim blaming saying, "Oh dem young gyal too hot up wit demselves and feel dey big!" and "Dey look for dat! It good fuh dem!"
The IRO has demonstrated that for all their talk of protecting children some religions will tolerate archaic laws that make pedophilia okay. That marrying one's statutory rapist somehow, makes it all better! It would be easy to say it is just old men of Hindu and Muslim background pushing this nonsense (and ignoring the women of their religious communities speaking out) but sadly there is also a lone female voice that supports the old law, Barbara Burke, head of the Spiritual Baptist Church. Her reasons for supporting marrying off girls as young as 12 were made very transparent when in an interview she expressed fears that if the law is struck down it sets a precedent that State Law trumps people's religious beliefs. She is worried that other things that some in the religious community are in support of might be similarly challenged.
"This is what we are guarding against," she said. "The State always tends to be advantageous and you got to battle to overcome the State and this is a serious thing. We are going to make sure we are always on our guard. Except they have a crisis and they can't handle it they call in the churches but too many people in this country don't want to serve God and people who do, they want to put you in jail or burn you at the stake. ... I will give up my license if I have to marry Steve and Kirt and Hilda and Doris."
What she fears hits at the heart of the matter and this is where I turn from journalist to activist.
Some religious traditions are bad! Some religious beliefs are harmful! Some religious traditions trample on the well-being of others or tacitly condone negative attitudes in the society that put its most vulnerable at risk of exploitation and dehumanization. Civil laws cannot be informed by such beliefs. It is time for Governments to step up doing their job of protecting the human rights of all citizens by making laws based on evidence not blind allegiance to tradition. The age of consent in Trinidad and Tobago is eighteen (18) because we have recognized after years of evidence-based hindsight and the study of the generational effects of underage pregnancy and underage sexual relationships that a certain level of emotional and mental maturity is needed to be able to consent to sex and handle any repercussions that may come from it.
Some say this IRO firestorm is an all too convenient distraction from the hotly contended SSA Bill, (many are concerned it gives T&T's Government the unlimited ability to spy on private phone conversations and e-mail correspondences), that the current Government is trying to pass. Whether this is true or not, is irrelevant. Regardless of how important other matters are regarding protecting Constitutional Right to Privacy, we still have a child-predatory society to deal with right now!
We do not have the luxury to let an opportunity like this, that has united people of every race, gender, class, religion in solidarity, to slip away. There is a lot of work to be done within Government institutions to make Trinidad and Tobago a safer place for children. The Ministry of Health can no longer operate in a silo when underage girls show up pregnant at the hospital and it is not reported to the police, each and every single time! There has to be Comprehensive Sex Education in schools that tackle the real issues young people are facing, not the proven failure of Abstinence Only, which has wasted tax-payer money on in other countries, like the USA and several African nations grappling with HIV, and now the religious contractors are trying to push their failed product here in the Caribbean. We cannot risk that here, not with our problems. Trinidad and Tobago and the entire region needs proper intervention for children and young teens who are at risk for sexual exploitation due to poverty and poor parenting. Proper prosecution of predators of children and a Sex Offender's Registry are all needed.
That is why the burning momentum being felt right now cannot be allowed to dissipate. It has to drive the engine of cultural change towards real solutions.