Child marriage, as it relates to the Hindu and Muslim communities of Trinidad and Tobago, is a law that has been on the books for nearly a century, but of late, there has been public pressure to repeal it.
Women's and human rights lobby groups — as well as ordinary netizens — deem the practice as child abuse, which they say is in direct contravention of the tenets of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), to which Trinidad and Tobago is a signatory, and which defines minors as “every human being below the age of 18”.
In the latest twist in the controversy, Sat Maharaj, the secretary general of the Sanatan Dharma Maha Sabha, the country's most high-profile Hindu organisation, had harsh words for some of the noteworthy people speaking out against the practice as well as anyone else advocating for the amendment of the marriage law.
He told Joseph Harris, the country's Roman Catholic archbishop who was critical of child marriage once the matter came under public scrutiny:
Archbishop, mind your own damn business. This is the business of the Hindu community and the state.
Maharaj also effectively told the United States’ ambassador to the country, John Estrada, to keep his nose out of the issue:
In every state, there's a different age and the age is as low as 13 in the United States of America, Mr. Ambassador. Cure your own evil before you come to tell us how to cure our evil.
Still, to many netizens, Maharaj’s rant was further proof that child marriage is indeed “evil”. Facebook user Mark Lyndersay commented, tongue firmly in cheek:
Because a young girl's agency over her own body depends on the faith into which she is born.
Blogger and Facebook user Rhoda Bharath simply said:
The popular satirical website Wired868 couldn't resist commenting on this latest misstep:
The ‘business’ that Maharaj is defending, incidentally, is the right for Hindu girls to be married, under the Hindu Marriage Act, from the age of 14. So far, so backward.
Now, in case you missed it—maybe, for instance, you were focused on the stuttering economy, bloodletting in the streets, judicial constipation, police disservice, or the ticking time bomb next door in Venezuela—the Inter-Religious Organisation (IRO) head Brother Harrypersad Maharaj revealed, two weeks ago, that local religious bodies rather liked the idea of keeping the option of child brides on the table.
In case of emergencies, of course.
Which kinda begs the question: What sort of problem, save for pending deportation, is a hastily arranged marriage supposed to cure in 2016? […] Does marriage really cover shame? Or merely increase the number of the humiliated?
The Wired868 post also picked apart Maharaj's justification for keeping the act as is:
‘[They] could make children though,’ said Maharaj, ‘with old men. Nobody locking up the old men…
‘When you are young, you take chances. And if a girl at the age of 14 took a chance and she got pregnant, the two sets of parents will come together, and they will give support, they will send them back to school. And they will take charge of the child.’
Wait… So your defence is if the police are not successfully prosecuting offenders of statutory rape, why not legitimise the act and allow them to keep their victims?
Sorry. No words. That’s exactly the sort of idea that, if you let bounce around in your head for a bit, leads to an aneurysm.
Diaspora blogger Jumbie's Watch, however, was not in the least bit surprised. Citing the first and fourth paragraphs of Trinidad and Tobago's constitution, which talk about freedoms “founded upon respect for moral and spiritual values and the rule of law”, he wrote:
I have often read or heard in the media, comments by various people that Trinidad and Tobago is a secular state. I don’t know how or where that misconception came about […]
Morality is independent of both religion and culture, but in the minds of most people, morality is religion and culture.
[…] I hope that people can accept that Trinidad and Tobago is NOT a secular country and that religion is given an unproportioned weight in decision making.
Some Hindus were ashamed by Maharaj's statements; Shane Anthony Mohammed, in a public Facebook post, said:
What a damn disgrace to our ancestry. […]
He has embarrassed the Hindus of our country and further segregated our us by his insults and callous remarks.
But Maharaj also had his supporters. Leigh López commented publicly on Facebook:
I must say, I LOVE Sat Maharaj response! “Mind your damn business” #WhoVexLoss
The overwhelming reaction to Maharaj's statement has been one of criticism, but the battle lines have been drawn. As public pressure to amend the Marriage Act mounts, the government may very well be in for a fight.