On January 17, the Senate passed the bill by 23 “for”, none “against” and five abstentions, the latter comprised of Opposition Senators. The bill amends the Marriage Act, Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act, Hindu Marriage Act, Orisa Marriage Act and Matrimonial Proceedings and Property Act.
Upon Speaker Bridgid Annisette- George reporting the results of the vote to the House, a clearly relieved Attorney General Faris Al-Rawi said, “I would just smile for a moment. I’m elated. I thank honourable members and you Madam Speaker sincerely.” Minutes before, the taking of the vote had some moments of excitement.
Opposition chief whip David Lee was first to indicate his party’s line with a “yes” that elicited desk-thumping from the Government benches. Down the line other Opposition MPs agreed.
Barataria/San Juan MP Dr Fuad Khan made an interjection about defending people’s rights, then voted “yes”. Smiling impishly, Chaguanas West MP Ganga Singh went one better to say, “It’s a noooooo-brainer....yes!” Opposition Leader Kamla Persad- Bissessar was absent. Earlier, Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley implored MPs to support the bill so as to end the disadvantage and discrimination in life prospects suffered by girls who enter marriage at an early age in what he said are often lopsided arrangements.
He expressed surprise that Persad-Bissessar had in the past opposed child marriage, but this March, defended Maha Sabha head Sat Maharaj’s stance on the issue. Rowley queried David Lee’s attempt to link the 16 year old minimum age for labour laws to an ideal age for marriage. Rowley said working at 16 may not be detrimental to one’s future, unlike child marriage. He said females entering child marriage are often deprived of developmental opportunities.
Refuting any call to retain child marriage on cultural grounds, the PM said that likewise the British Government adamantly female genital mutilation on British soil despite calls by some that it is a cultural activity prevalent in Africa.
“Mutilation of females in the 21st century is deemed to be unacceptable.
(To oppose it) is not disrespecting the ancestors.” Rowley said the Constitution gives no man the right to have an underage wife. “The status quo (that is child-marriage) may have one or two cases of success, but it is largely horror stories. If in a future time there are those who can reverse it (the bill), then reverse it. But now, we intervene and we speak for those who cannot speak for themselves.” Al-Rawi in his wind up said most child-marriages consisted of an unemployed girl marrying a gardener or a caretaker, persons generally from the society’s lower socio-economic ranks. Pointing out further difficulties that such arrangements would face, the AG said an underage girl cannot even buy a SIM card, far less obtain items such as a driving licence or alcohol.