BHAWNA ATMARAM

According to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (signed in 1989), a child is defined as ‘any human being under the age of eighteen, unless the age of majority is attained earlier under national legislation.’ In Mauritius, the age of majority is 18 and hence, under the upcoming proposed Children’s Bill, the age of majority will be aligned to that of the age of civil marriage for everybody. Gone are the days of getting a civil marriage at the age of 16 with parental consent.

This is a welcome proposal as children will be encouraged to focus on their schooling rather than engaging in matrimony at a tender age, when many things might be very confusing. Unfortunately in Mauritius, the debate around this proposal has been met with ugly racial slurs. A quick social media tour will reveal how many are completely missing the point and are indulging in self-victimisation fallacy. Cultural practices have always been subject to change worldwide throughout centuries and should be factually addressed when obsolete. Otherwise, we would still be legally condoning cannibalism and human sacrifice, for instance.

We have to move on with time, while constantly questioning ourselves and antiquated practices. In Mauritius, the rule of the law, with our Constitution safeguarding national interests, should reign supreme. Therefore, levelling up the age of civil marriage to 18 has been a long time coming. Since anyone under the age of 18 is legally defined as a child, then that child’s rights should take precedence over anything else. The child should be fully protected against coercion of any form, including that of getting married. Mixing issues of sexual abuse, teenage pregnancy and age of sexual consent should not be entertained in the context of the age of civil marriage. These are separate issues which must be individually addressed.

In the meantime, sexual education classes should be revamped in an attempt to counteract the dissemination of false sexual notions which are readily available online. Ongoing efforts should be maintained to encourage youngsters to finish school and should they decide to engage in matrimony once they reach the age of majority when they might have attained a higher degree of maturity, then they will certainly be free to do so. But till our children are still in the phase of childhood and adolescence, it’s school bells that they should be hearing, not their own wedding bells!