Muvman Liberasyon Fam
MLF supports the calls by the Ombudsperson for Children and others for the age of marriage to be raised to the age of majority. This will be both just and logical: it will be just, because girls between 16 and 18 will not be able to be as easily married off, or even forced or duped into marriage, and logical, because when less than 18 years old, a girl does not have the effective right to say “No, I do not want to marry” and, as a minor, by definition, is under the tutelage of her parents.
Everyone, however, comments as though there is no really lived history behind the issue. The subject of the minimum age for marriage has, one would think, been addressed for the first time after the news of the truly tragic story of a young girl, religiously married at 13, pregnant, epileptic and now dead.
Some recent history
In fact, the MLF spear-headed the movement in the 1970s and early 1980s for a two pronged change in the Civil Code, which would bring a revolution in marriage laws, including raising the age of marriage to 18 – unless you got a Court Order, a change that was later over-turned by all the political parties.
Revisionist historians say that, when old man Ramgoolam suddenly got very upset because he saw so many women and children suffering under the old marriage laws, he called in an expert from France, Prof. Robert Garron, who then fixed the laws. Ramgoolam indeed did not favour matrimonial laws that oppressed women and children and Prof Robert Garron was a philosophical legiste who did organize the new laws. But it was not like that that change came. This version is all very paternalistic. The women are erased from the memory of this version.
It was just not like that.
What did happen?
What actually happened
There was a women’s revolution going on.
Women were seething with anger. Organizing. And moving. Petitions, forums, public meetings, protests, marches, processions, uprisings.
But to understand how marriage laws changed, let us look at the double problem we as women had on the issue of marriage:
Significant proportions of couples were married, and continued to marry, only under religious codes in Mauritius – and thus the wives were considered by the State as mere concubines of their husbands, while their children were considered by the state to be “illegitimate”, with often more degrading terms used. In practice, religiously married men with macho tendencies would leave “wives” and children, take up with other “wives” and have children – what was called “fer piti partu partu” and generally resort to high levels of emotional blackmail in relation to their wife or any of their wives and any of their mistresses. Children were married off under religious codes from extremely young ages, and often, as children themselves, gave birth to babies.
So, why did the MLF not just run a campaign to get all religious marriages to have civil effect?
Here comes the second problem.
The existing Code Napoleon laws turned women into minors under the charge of their husbands under a civil law, the minute they married them. And the marriage and divorce laws had all the hallmarks of the history of Catholic religious marriages. The minute a woman married a man, she became under his tutelage, as though she were a minor. He could intercept her pay perfectly legally, or prevent her from leaving the country. Marriage was for life, if not eternity. Divorce had to be based on “faute”, and was extremely difficult, costly and took years and years. Instead of séparation des biens being the automatic regime, the communauté des biens regime was automatic, and still is – this almost always favours the stronger in society, ie the male who institutions make stronger. Marriage was allowed at 14 years old, and with the Courts permission, much younger.
Women in those days called “civil marriage” by an appropriate name: “maryaz lapolis”, the State being reduced, rather appropriately to its ultimately repressive function!
So, the campaign that the MLF initiated in 1977, and built up in concert with local Women’s Associations, still dynamic from their birth as organizations to get the political right to vote through the educational process of literacy, and with La Ligue Féministe, Association des Femmes Mauriciennes and the Mauritius Alliance of Women, demanded two things:
- Amend the civil laws, in a whole list of ways, but including raising marriage age to 18 years old, i.e. age of majority.
- Arrange for full civil effects to flow from all religious marriages.
Many important amendments came from these struggles, and with help from pressure from the Labour Party Women’s Wing and then, in codification, from Prof Garron. However, the amendments removed discrimination between men and women in the text which is extremely important, but the amendments never really got to the heart of the patriarchal nature of the marriage code. (Later, by the way, the MLF developed a fine Charter on Matrimonial and Allied Laws in 2001, contributed to and signed up to by many, many women’s associations to expose the patriarchal nature of marriage even now.)
Importantly, the marriage age was raised to 18 in the series of 1980 to 1981 amendments that followed the years of mobilization. To marry younger, it was necessary to get a Court Order, not only parental permission. So, it had become an acquired right for women not to be married off before the age of majority.
However, the minimum marriage age was again lowered to 16 years old. In Parliament on 10 April, 1984 under a Government of Jugnauth-Duval-Ramgoolam (all “Senior” in the papa-piti scale) with the support of the MMM Opposition, there was a unanimous vote to undo the progress made. Before this, Gaetan Duval had come on TV as Minister of Justice to explain that the capitulation was due to “religious pressures”.
It is progress that today all these parties are calling for the formal minimum age for marriage to be 18 years again. The MLF of course maintains our total support.
25 June, 2018.