A petition to end child marriages has been set up on Facebook days after the Inter-Religious Organisation (IRO) warned of dire social repercussions if the State interfered with the Marriage Act.
Despite a recommendation from the Child Protection Unit and the Children's Authority that child marriages be banned, senior IRO officials said they will not back down from their stance supporting legal marriage by 12, 14 and 16-year-old children.
The petition, which was set up by Shireen Aziz Kublalsingh, got 435 signatures up to 2 pm yesterday. In her opening statement, Kublalsingh said, "Come on ladies, say no to child marriages, forget religion, it's wrong!!!"
Several bloggers who signed the petition slammed the IRO president Brother Harrypersad Maharaj for supporting child marriages.
However, Maharaj in an interview yesterday said he was unfazed by the public outcry, insisting that marriage provided protection for young girls.
"That was a unanimous decision taken by the IRO. Seventeen members of the IRO were present. We agreed that the Marriage Act must not be changed. This is a cultural tradition that was handed down from generations and all members have taken the decision to uphold it. We stand firm by our decision," Maharaj said. He warned that if the State banned child marriages then abortion and suicides would become rampant.
Pointing to the high rate of divorce, Maharaj said increasing the age of a child for marriage will not help the social crisis that was facing T&T. He said children were having sex in schools and there was a breakdown in family life.
Meanwhile, Bishop Claude Berkley of the Anglican Church said there must be wider consultations on the Marriage Act before any decision is taken.
"The Anglican Church is a part of the IRO. I don't want to make a comment until I spoke to the representative. This needs to be the subject of a wider discussion given the outcomes that have been produced by the Children's Authority over the past few weeks," Berkley said.
He added that the issue is a matter of urgent public importance.
First vice president of the IRO, Imam Haji Afzal Mohammed, also agreed with Maharaj's views saying child marriage is a protection for the young people.
"It is not about taking advantage of children as some people say. It is about protection for the young people. In other words we will cause abortion and suicide if we remove this law. People will have to live with shame for the rest of their lives if their children get pregnant and they cannot marry," Mohammed said.
The licensed marriage and divorce officer said there are more divorces than marriages in T&T.
The Unit recently indicated that there have been over 1,700 reports of child abuse in the past year.