"I call it rape: totally, rape," Maria Jadoo-Villafana insists. When Jadoo-Villafana was five years old, she met the man she would marry four years later. At the age of 11, she became pregnant for what would prove the first of 25 times: "Not at one time they ever saw my belly flat."
Now 45, the woman from Tamana, Trinidad — an island off the Venezuelan coast where instances of child brides are among the highest in the Caribbean — looks back on her life with bitter regret. "It should not happen."
Until this year, child marriage was legal on the islands of Trinidad and Tobago: a place where you have to be at least 18 to buy a SIM card, but where girls could once say their nuptials at the age most children are just beginning to learn how to read.
On June 9, a landmark ruling passed unanimously in parliament finally outlawed the practice of child marriage. Despite resistance from the religious, patriarchal minority, the move was met with widespread public support, due in large part to a fomenting women's rights movement which first vocalized its outrage six years ago.
Not “an ethnic issue”
Back in 2011, the country put forward the Children's Act bill. It passed in 2012, changing the legal age of consent to 18 years. Passage of the bill had an immediate domino effect on other laws which suddenly no longer passed the litmus test.
"All other laws had to be changed to be in harmony," Dr. Gabrielle Hosein, head of the Institute for Gender and Development Studies at the University of the West Indies in Trinidad, told teleSUR. "Child marriage was then legalizing rape."
The majority of countries have a unified law on marriage, but Trinidad had for more than a century held multiple laws, split along religious lines. Muslims could marry as young as 12; Hindus could marry at 14. Orisas could marry once they reached 16, while Christians had no age restriction at all.
Dating back to the 1800s, the laws were advocated for because, at that time, "Indian and Muslim and other marriages were not recognized by the state," explains Hosein. With only Christian marriage laws recognized, many other groups were left with few rights, including those relating to inheritance and property. Still, says Hosein, child marriage is not "an ethnic issue."
In parliamentary debates before the law was amended in June 2017, Attorney General Faris Al-Rawi said 3,478 child marriages were recorded by the Registrar General between 1996 and 2016. Of these, 1,156 were civil child marriages (both Christian and non-Christian); 1,796 were Hindu child marriages, and 526 were Muslim child marriages.
Almost 98 percent of those unions involved underage brides, many of whom were married off to men aged up to 52.
The Hindu women who spearheaded the movement
Faced with this reality, the Hindu Women’s Organization (HWO) sprang into action. "In 2011, we began to petition parliament to amend the laws,” Renuka Kangal, the Public Relations Officer at the HWO, told teleSUR.
The women's group consulted other Hindu, Muslim, Orisa and Christian leaders. Following a number of stakeholder meetings, public forums and debates, in 2011 the HWO submitted a report to the government calling for marriage laws to be amended.
The National Muslim Women's Organisation of Trinidad and Tobago also mobilized — in direct opposition to the country's president — stating: "Our aim is the protection of the rights of the child. In today's world, children under the age of 18 are generally not prepared to assume the responsibilities of marriage."
Once the government took notice, it began holding its own forums and debates. The public also started paying attention after the passing of the Children's Act, "which raised the issue of child marriage in the country," says Kangal.
As Hosein notes: "There was always widespread public support, because there was an understanding there is a presence of predatory masculinities that targets young girls."
This, along with growing public awareness of the high rates of teenage pregnancies and child sex-abuse, prompted many Trinidadians to support the push for abolition.
Finally, six months after being introduced as the Miscellaneous Provisions (Marriage) Bill, on June 9 legislation was unanimously passed to amend the Marriage Act, Chapter 45:01; the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act, Chapter 45:02; the Hindu Marriage Act, Chapter 45:03; the Orisa Marriage Act, Chapter 45:04; and the Matrimonial Proceedings and Property Act, Chapter 45:51.
After years of mobilization, the centuries-old child marriage laws had finally been abolished.
The “conservative, patriarchal” minority
But the victory, born through prolonged struggle, continues to face challenges today.
Conservative Hindu organization the Mahi Saba has vowed to test the law in court. One of what Hosein describes as Trinidad's few "very conservative, patriarchal voices," the Mahi Saba have argued that the government has no right to intervene in religious affairs.
Still, Hosein notes, "they don’t have a lot of national or public support. If anything, they may be able to debate technicalities of the law, but not change the law itself."
Even the HWO has queried the law. For much of the campaign, they argued for there to be a "window of consent between the ages of 16 and 18," Kangal explains. The rationale was that there may be cases, for example, when a 17-year-old wants to marry her 20-year-old partner. Such a model already exists in Canada.
Ultimately, however, the law has been changed to prohibit anyone under the age of 18 from getting married: a move for which Kangal is both proud and grateful after what has been an arduous journey.
"It was a long and hard front, but it was especially heartening to see people hold true to their consciousness, and bring about much-needed change," she said.
For a country devoid of policies addressing specific issues of gender equality, Trinidad and Tobago have made a galvanizing move forward for the region, if not the world.