Sheila Bunwaree

Not a single day passes by without a child being abandoned, beaten up, abused, maltreated, bullied or ignored by the authorities even when they are most vulnerable such as the case of the 2 siblings who ran to the police to try save their mother from a violent father. These 2 children are now scarred for life without any law being able to repair that!

That the Children’s Bill has finally seen the light of day is very good indeed since it builds on the Child Protection Act of 1994 and is reflective of efforts being made to protect our children further. Many aspects of the law are very positive. Congrats to all those who worked to make this long-awaited bill happen. The 2 major points of contention however remain the legal age of marriage and the age at which a young person should be subjected to criminal proceedings. I will not delve on the latter but suffice it to say that I concur with the NGOs suggesting a child of 12 years is far too young and immature to be exposed to possible criminal conviction. Leaning on research done elsewhere and current societal dynamics, I privilege the view that the legal age for criminal proceedings for a young person should be brought up to 14 years old. However, the point that is of greater concern to me here is the legal age of marriage and the protection of our girls.

Dreams…

Allow me to prick the conscience of our law makers by asking the following question: What dreams do you have for your adolescent daughter or granddaughter? I bet you all have great dreams: seeing your daughter graduating at a prestigious university, embracing a wonderful career, having happy families and experiencing peace and success throughout their lives. Surely, none of us would want our girls to experience the same fate of that little 13-year old girl, who was married and died after complications in pregnancy. That young girl’s death is still etched in the memories of some. At the news of her death, we were all appalled – the death of one young girl is ‘un de trop’- a phrase often heard during the public outcry at the time of her death. If we were to engage in a referendum now, many Mauritians would opt for the legal age of marriage to be 18 and dismiss the possibility of ‘minors over 16 and under 18 contracting civil marriage with the consent of his/her parents.’ We just have to listen to the many voices in the public sphere to appreciate how our society has evolved. Most Mauritians seem to align themselves with the NGOs defending the rights of children and asking for the abrogation of Section 145 of the Code Civil so that our children, particularly our girls are better protected. The African Children’s Charter describes the marriage of children below the age of 18 as a ‘harmful practice’ that children must be protected from.

The UN Sustainable Development Goals, particularly Target 5.3 of the SDGs aims to ‘eliminate all harmful practices, such as child, early and forced marriages.’ Many countries, inclusive of Mauritius argue that they are doing their best to meet the SDGs but the current debate on the Children’s Bill, particularly, the legal age of marriage, highlights the many tensions and contradictions of our society.

The Bill speaks of the ‘best interests of the child’ and of ‘forced marriage’. Is risking the lives of our girls and blighting the future of our girls ‘in their best interests’? And how do we define ‘forced marriages’? I just met a 55-year old father who married off his 16-year old daughter some months back arguing that it was one mouth less to feed. Nothing else mattered to him. He found what he thinks is a ‘suitable boy’. Furthering conversation with other members of the family, we discovered that the young man he married his daughter to is a school drop-out, has no stable job, comes from a broken home and is some 13 years older than his daughter. The young man has no fixed place of abode… some family members also said that the young man is an alcoholic and gets violent at times… However, economic conditions in the household are so bad that they all succumbed to the head of household’s decision to marry off the girl. One can imagine the kind of risks that this young girl may be exposed to… Was there ‘forced marriage’? Was the marriage in the ‘best interests of the child’? The argument that in addition to parents’ consent, the law brings some further safeguard for the child since there is now also the possibility for a judge to pronounce himself/ herself in the case of an early marriage is a weak one. Hearing a judge’s voice in the matter will certainly not suffice to address the complex structural causes leading to early marriages nor to protect our girls.

Global Gender Gap Index

Early marriage denies girls their right to make vital decisions about their sexual rights and well-being. It forces them out of education leaving them with very little opportunity, with an increased risk of violence, abuse, ill health or early death. This is why CEDAW, the SADC Gender Protocol, the Convention on the Rights of the Child denounce early marriages. They see it as a pathway to the reinforcement and reproduction of gender inequality. Mauritius has ratified many of these international and regional instruments and should live up to its obligations. Failing to do so would mean staying at a very low ranking on the Global Gender Gap Index. We have already slid to a very embarrassing position of 112th on the world scale.

We also celebrated the 2019 UN women days a few months back around the theme: ‘Think Equal, Build Smart and Innovate for Change’ but how can we make sense of such a celebration and lend credence to the theme and truly Think Equal, if we allow certain occult forces prevent us from seizing the opportunity to go the extra mile towards protecting our girls.

Our children are the adults of tomorrow and what happens to them in their early lives determines the kind of society in which we would live in the future. Laws are important but not sufficient to protect our children. Protecting the latter also requires:
(1) That an effective ‘Sex, Values, Family Life’ Education be urgently introduced in all schools and in all informal out of school settings. Girls with little education often perceive a wedding as a glamorous event and an opportunity to dress up and feel special. They fail to understand the responsibilities of what a married life entails as well as the drudgery that it brings with it often times. No one has the right to take advantage of such innocence.
(2) That children are made familiar with all existing hotlines available at relevant ministries/organizations which can assist them when they are in danger
(3) That the economic model be urgently revisited so that poverty can be eradicated, more jobs created and the increasing number of often unreported, poverty-related child marriages be stopped.
(4) That the office of the Ombudsperson for children with civil society put pressure on our legislators so that the latter do not miss the opportunity of bringing the necessary changes/amendments to the law in the interest of gender justice and a more inclusive society.