According to the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF), “child marriage refers to any formal marriage or informal union between a child under the age of 18 and an adult or another child”.
Child marriage has been recognised by numerous human rights bodies and/or experts as a practice that violates the rights of children and is a form of gender-based violence.
Though progress continues to be made regarding the abolition of child marriage across the world, child marriage is still legally recognised in many states. Specifically, in many English-speaking Commonwealth Caribbean countries including St Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG), laws recognising child marriage continue to exist.
The only two countries in the English-speaking Commonwealth Caribbean to have abolished child marriage thus far are the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago and Antigua and Barbuda. Trinidad and Tobago abolished Child Marriage in 2017. Antigua and Barbuda followed soon after and abolished child marriage in 2019. However, 10 other English-speaking Commonwealth Caribbean territories continue to recognise child marriage. These are Belize, the Bahamas, Jamaica, St. Kitts and Nevis, The Commonwealth of Dominica, St. Lucia, St Vincent and the Grenadines, Barbados, Grenada, and the Co-operative Republic of Guyana.
According to UNICEF’s report titled “A Profile of Child Marriage and Early Unions in Latin America and the Caribbean”, one in four young women in Latin America and the Caribbean were first married or in union before their 18th birthday. The region’s prevalence of this practice is only lower than that of sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.
In terms of statistics, Belize has the highest rate of child marriage amongst the English-speaking Commonwealth Caribbean territories. The percentage of women aged 20-24 who were married before they were 18 is a staggering 33 percent. In comparison, the percentage of men aged 20-24 who were married before they were 18 is a shocking 22 percent.
As illustrated above in the case of Belize, women and girls are significantly more affected by this practice than men and boys and are therefore more vulnerable to abuse and exploitation because of these marriages.
States, including SVG, have an obligation to respect, protect, and fulfil human rights at the domestic level. Amongst other things, this obligation means that States must proactively examine the issue of child marriage within their respective territories and make the requisite changes to the relevant laws in order to effectively address the issue of child marriage.
The law that governs the solemnisation of marriage in SVG in its Marriage Act. Persons who have reached the age of 18 years and widowers and widows may marry without the consent of others. However, minors under the age of 18, who wish to get married need to have the verbal consent of their parent/s or guardian/s. It is important to note that in this Act, the minimum age in which female minors can get married with consent is 15 years old and for males it is 16 years old.
Moreover, under SVG’s Marriage Act the consent of the father is given priority over the mother. Where the father is dead, if there is no lawful guardian/s, then the mother can consent to her child getting married. If the parent/s or guardian/s of the minor is non-compos mentis, or unreasonably withholds their consent to the marriage of any person, either party to the intended marriage may refer the matter to a Judge of the High Court who has the power to issue a certificate granting consent to the marriage between the intended parties.
It is obvious from the above that SVG’s Marriage Act needs to be urgently amended. Even if child marriage is not currently recognised as a widespread issue in SVG, the law currently legalises this practice and provides an avenue for children to be abused and exploited. Child marriage should be illegal and stiff penalties should be provided to deter adults who try to force, pressure, or allow children to enter into these marriages.
Today, I encourage the Prime Minister, the Legislature, and all other relevant persons to make it a priority to amend SVG’s Marriage Act so that we can better protect children in SVG and prevent them from being subjected to this practice and all the adverse effects that may follow as a result.
Author: Jeshua Bardoo is a Vincentian Barrister-at-law and Solicitor. He is also the President of Equal Rights, Access and Opportunities SVG Inc. He can be contacted via email at jeshuabardoo