Government says there is a critical need for "the age of marriage to be aligned to the age of consent for sexual conduct" in T&T.This was contained in a statement from the Minister of State in the Office of the Prime Minister Ayanna Webster-Roy, who has specific responsibility for Gender and Child Affairs.
The consent age of sexual conduct is 18 but certain religious faiths allow for marriage at age 12.
Webster-Roy's statement was made in the wake of a controversial call from the president of the Inter-Religious Organisation (IRO), Bro Harrypersad-Maharaj, for the retention of the rights of a Hindu girl to be married at age 12 and a Muslim girl at age 14.
General secretary of the Sanathan Dharma Maha Sabha Satnarayan Maharaj had also said the minimum age for marriage should be retained.There has been a public petition calling for the law to be amended to prevent child marriages in the country.
Marriage is permitted under the Hindu Marriage Act for a girl who is 14 and a boy who is 18; the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act permits marriage for a girl at age 12 and a boy at 16; the Orisa Marriage Act allows marriage for a girl at age 16 and a boy at age 18 and the Marriage Act, Chapter 45:04 sets out a process and procedure of consent for marriages of minors, which govern Christian and civil marriages.
Webster-Roy said: "Children are entitled to the fullest benefits of childhood and to enjoyment of their rights as children," adding that "the Government is committed to the protection and fulfilment of those rights."
She added that the child protection goals embodied in the Children's Act and provisions that children under the age of 18 cannot consent to penetrative sexual conduct was "a collective will to safeguard and protect our children."
She said the gap between "the age for mariage and the age of consent to penetrative sexual conduct has increased since the proclamation of the Children's Act 2012 and must be harmonised."She said early marriage can expose a child to:
�2 Decreased opportunity for education.
�2 Serious health risk, such as premature pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections.
�2 High risk due to early pregnancy.
�2 Increased likelihood of being subjected to gender-based violence.
The Diego Martin United Church, a member of the IRO, yesterday said it denounced statements to justify child marriages.It called on the Government to ensure the rights and protection of all our country's children, over and above any religious law and practice to the contrary.
The church said sexual activity between an adult and a minor "is paedophilia and is disgraceful for any government to have it enshrined into any law or Marriage Act for any pertinent group or other."
It added: "We believe that every measure should be taken to eliminate all forms of abuse and violation of human dignity, especially in regard to child marriages but also including murders, forced marriages, human trafficking, rape, incest and other indignities against human persons.
"We hold these matters to be necessary and relevant to our society and central to its sustainability. "
Attorney General Faris Al-Rawi said yesterday he would make a comprehensive statement on the controversial issue shortly.He said that during an interview yesterday at the Hyatt Regency, Port-of-Spain, where he was attending a two-day conference on campaign finance reform.
There has been concern among citizens over the issue in the wake of a call from the president of the Inter-Religious Organisation, Bro Harrypersad Maharaj, in defence of the existing right of the position taken by the IRO in defence of child marriages.
A petition was launched calling for child marriages to end in T&T.
Questioned about the issue yesterday, Al-Rawi said he was "looking at the issue very, very closely. I have done a massive amount of work on it."
He said a comprehensive statement would be issued shortly, insisting he did not intend to shy away from it.