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Inside Paradise: Standing on the shoulders of giants, we outlawed child marriage
Published on July 15, 2017 Email To Friend    Print Version

By Sherna Alexander Benjamin

"...The harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives everything its value." ~ Thomas Paine

Every media house carried the news on June 9, 2017. This day was a historic one for Trinidad and Tobago and the seen and unseen actions of all will forever be etched in the annals of history as a memorial of all those who acted to protect human rights, promote gender equality, dignity and liberty. The Bill to harmonise the Marriage Acts in Trinidad and Tobago was passed in the House of Representatives on June 9, 2017. The minimum age for marriage is now 18 years. 35 members of Parliament voted in favour of the Bill, zero against and zero abstentions.

Sherna Alexander Benjamin is a disruptive thinker, strategist, law student and uses her voice to advocate for Human Rights, Gender Equality and Gender Mainstreaming and the realisation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development
Thirteen days later, on Thursday, June 22, 2017, Trinidad and Tobago's President Anthony Carmona assented to the Miscellaneous Provisions (Marriage) Act, 2017. This Act No. 8 of 2017 is an Act to amend the Marriage Act, Chap.45:01, the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act, Chap. 45:2, the Hindu Marriage Act, Chap. 45:3, the Orisa Marriage Act, Chap.45:4 and the Matrimonial Proceedings and Property Act, Chap.45:51. The Bill raised the age of marriage to 18, effectively outlawing child marriage in the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago.

And members of the Coalition Against Child Marriage and their partners in Trinidad and Tobago were elated. All our WhatsApp was blowing up, phones rang out, emails came in one after the other and, despite this jubilant time, the coalition with its partners each embraced a moment of silence and uttered with deep humility in the bonds of camaraderie "It is finished." None of us will ever forget this moment in time. Our hope is that the settlers (future generations) will appreciate the work of the pioneers who went on before to pave the way for them as they must never forget nor make light of these struggles for change.

The beautiful twin island state of Trinidad and Tobago often gives the deluded public appearance of being a country filled with happy people, a nation where its citizens will continue jamming (partying in Trini style) even if the country is burning down, people come from countries near and far to participate in Carnival when soca, wine, women, and song take over the country for two full days when the artistic display of the nation's mas costume creators are seen in full beauty and array.

The country is also known for 'bacchanal', as there is an inquisitive culture within the island to know, to acquire information even when knowing profits nothing. Many also say that there is a consistent culture of cronyism, collusion, corruption, crime, failed political promises and allegations of poor governance where government officials subtly pilfer from the national purse for selfish gain and amusement and support their capitalist friends while grinding the poor to the dust.

However, while many are focused on climbing out of the pits of their socio-economic challenges that retard their development and progress, a dragon with deep-seated strong roots was lurking in the background within the bowels of the nation in the form of child marriage.

This dragon violated young girls, and restricted them from receiving an academic education. It made them mothers all too soon and forced them to be wives and caretakers undermining their dignity, self-worth and destroying their health while abusing their human right to freedom, life and self-expression in the process.

This dragon forced many young girls to remain silent and die while breathing, it pushed many to smile during times of excruciating pain and when no deliverance was in sight these young brides mentally accepted and normalised, some even defending the reasons why they were married off when they should be playing at school and fulfilling their dreams.

Could such horror happen in a paradise? Sadly, too often, horrors of immense proportions happen daily in plain sight within countries that are deemed as a paradise. If we would look a little closer we would see unimaginable horrors, maybe even in the house next door.

In 2016 the burning issue of child marriage was brought to the national legislative agenda, public consultations were hosted by the present attorney general, the Honourable Mr Faris Al-Rawi, numerous discussions ensued, sparking religious, civil, and university debates; even the man on the street chimed in.

It was in this same year that the fading hope of seeing child marriage outlawed within Trinidad and Tobago was rekindled and the Coalition Against Child Marriage was formed, as many advocates decided that enough was enough and as such they embraced the opportunity to bring closure to this burning issue, which caused many of them to burn the midnight oil of advocacy in years gone by. Many organisations quickly joined this movement, aligning themselves with the coalition and civil society became stirred up with action and for action.

Upon joining the Coalition Against Child Marriage I was moved with deep respect and humility to serve my country, as I cherished the opportunity to stand on the shoulders of giants (pioneer advocates) during this historic moment in our country's history, for the annals of history will never record our voices as being silent during a time of war when the human rights of girls who would become women was defended.

I saw history in the making, as advocates from the past and present generations came together, united in a solemn bond and knitted together for a higher purpose of outlawing child marriage. This vision did not shift from our gaze, not even when we felt as though we were losing a battle the war was not over and we were determined that victory would be ours and belong to the girls and boys of the future.

I attentively listened and saw the pain in the faces of pioneers the likes of Hazel Brown, Brenda Gopeesingh, Folade Mutota, Dona Da Costa Martinez, Jacquie Burgess, Colin Robinson, Grace Talma and others speak of their early years as they lobbied previous governments to outlaw child marriage and take action on other social and economic issues affecting women and men, but I also saw hope as they looked on at the young advocates before them.

At times our meetings felt like a sacred ceremony of passing the batons of advocacy, batons which we all feared to embrace as these pioneers continue to mentor, strengthen and push us to be greater than our own selves and to understand that we must not be silent and never allow our own mental limitations to limit us.

When I joined the coalition in 2016 I mentally prepared myself for a long struggle of working with the team to lobby government officials, attend consultations, long nights of reviewing proposed legislative drafts that were laid in the Senate, numerous civil society meetings, and feeling the backlash of many in society who were against our movement. I can tell you at times the tension swelled even among civil society, as some of the coalition members took a stand for 18 years with no exception others held to 18 years with an exception.

However, something deeper and greater than our individual positions kept the coalition members together, united in battle and that was the vow that we made not to lose the war, not to see years of hard work and sacrifice by our pioneers go down the drain. We made a vow to see all the young girls of our nation free to thrive, to live healthy productive lives, to embrace an education, to become empowered and to have their human rights protected, defended and respected.

Freedom of our nation's girls superseded individual desires, country development and national progress were greater than the coalition itself, maturity and emotional regulation took control and calmed our emotions when tempers sought to fly because we kept the vision alive and insight. The coalition members learned a lot during the months leading up to the final passing of the legislation to harmonise all the country's Marriage Acts.

We saw politics at its best and its worst as we looked on and saw politicians use it as a crafty tool to try to manifest their true motives, seen and unseen. We saw that it can be used to try and divide, hurt, offer pre-planned failed promises, and make even the best of dreams become a frustrating nightmare. But we also saw that it can be used to protect democracy and defend human rights (which it did).

We witnessed the forked tongue of religious leaders, as religion was used as a focal point for many discussions and to keep child marriage intact. It was as if they were saying to the state and the country, "Thus far and no further; you are treading on sacred ground, be warned." Not even this religious onslaught and attacks hindered the coalition nor divided us as we forged ahead.

Many of the members took placards in hand and braved the melting midday sun to stand in front of Parliament to send a clear message that our voices will not cease and our actions will not end until child marriage is ended in our beautiful twin island state of Trinidad and Tobago and when it does we will then join our voices with our sisters and brothers in the region and globally.

The coalition was a diverse group, made up of different organisations, various professionals, students, and advocates we were individuals belonging to different religious faiths, some were agnostics even atheists, we were the children of Mother Africa, Mother India, Mother China, Mother Syria. The Caucasian man held the hand of the African woman and we united for the social good of our nation, national progress and we found comfort in each other, we cried together and shared our challenging journeys and we Lajwa together. We sheltered each other as we were hit with the stinging fault finding hurtful words of what can be an uncaring society.

At times when we felt dejected and were moved to depression due to the attacks by some fellow women in society who said we were making too much noise and that there were more important issues in the country to discuss than child marriage, we kept the vision before us and we kept it strong, we kept hope alive and we kept the work of those who laboured years before us in view, for their labours must never be in vain.

It is said that ‘the pioneers get the beating and settlers the rewards’ and the things we get too easy we do not value. As we move forward to regroup we will forever bear in mind that many died so we can have the freedom to use our voices, women were brutally killed in the region so that we can have the freedom that we so often take for granted.

We understand the value and worth of democracy, thousands were struck down so that we could realise our human rights and defend it, many broke their silence and shared their experiences of torture and pain so that we could have voices speaking for the voiceless and, as Thomas Paine once said, "I prefer peace. But if trouble must come, let it come in my time, so that my children can live in peace.”

We understand that it is crucial for us to fight today so that our children and grandchildren can have a Trinidad and Tobago, Caribbean and Latin America region which is no longer considered developing or third world nations and we will continue so they would understand and value our sacrifices for history will not allow them to forget.

While I am happy for the legislation, I realise that even in the passing of this legislation the lines of separation and animosity have gotten a bit wider in our society, as some are feeling aggrieved and slighted. One thing we all know is that "The price of progress is high", at times too high. As civil society, we hope that the wider populace can learn from the members who made up the coalition, as we worked for a better way, a better country and for the development of our people and our differences did not phase us for we kept the goal in sight.

I am honoured to be among such valiant women and men who dedicated their lives to the cause of advancing the rights of women and girls and men and boys. I am humbled to stand among women who broke religious, class and ethnic barriers and toiled using their voices to make a difference and I am elated to be among women and men who never allowed the negative attacks to keep them back from advocating for positive change.

Our country united us all. It did not matter at what point we joined the race, we ran with passion, dedication and looked for a country where our girls can be safe and hopefully enjoy their childhood. The struggle is far from over, the war is still raging and our armour and battle gear we will never put down. Yet, we will take the much-needed breaks to celebrate the victories and to dream of a country and a world where the violation of human rights, gender inequality, racial, religious, political and economic injustices will be a thing of the past.
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