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Caribbean child brides worry UNFPA

Agency says leaders must address human rights violation

BY NADINE WILSON Observer staff reporter wilsonn@jamaicaobserver.com

Monday, December 30, 2013    

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APPROXIMATELY 29 per cent of girls in the Caribbean were married before their 18th birthday, resulting in what representatives from the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) feel is a human rights violation that needs to be urgently addressed by regional leaders.

The issue was one of several raised when UNFPA officials met with government representatives, Caricom leaders, and youth advocacy groups earlier this month in Trinidad and Tobago for a multi-stakeholder, high-level consultation to discuss ways of reducing adolescent pregnancy in the Caribbean.

"That's an extraordinary figure; and when you look at that, it's almost as if you are saying we want young women to be pregnant before they finish school, while it's too dangerous to their health, while they are not able to take care of their children," deputy executive director of UNFPA, Kate Gilmore, told the Jamaica Observer.

"It's an extraordinary symptom of this lack of attention to the situation of young women. Once they are married, we think everything is okay, and it is not okay. They are not ready physically or socially," she lamented.

Executive director of the UNFPA and under-secretary general of the United Nations Babatunde Osotimehin noted that child brides were prevalent in certain sections of the world.

"There are parts of the world and countries that I have visited where 75 per cent of the girls are married before the age of 18, and when you look at them in terms of child-bearing, you find that of the number, sometimes 50 per cent of them would have had children before the age of 16," he pointed out.

He said leaders needed to address "the issue of child marriage and the fact that we actually live in a world where all of those child marriages have occurred in countries that have signed on to international conventions and actually have national laws that say they cannot marry until they are 18".

However, assistant secretary general for Caricom, Dr Douglas Slater, believes that as it relates to the region, most of these child marriages would have been practised by a religious sect rather than by the general population.

"There is a tendency in some religions and ethnic groupings to have child marriages... and I think among those of Indian descent, for example, it is a more common practice; but it is part of their culture," he said.

"That's why we are saying, we have to engage all groups to bring them to the realisation that there are problems. What is established as tradition may need to be changed in the interest of human development, because it does cause problems for our young people," he noted.

Trinidad and Tobago and Guyana were highlighted as countries where adolescent marriages are prominent. Although you must be 18 years old to get married in Trinidad and Tobago, the Marriage Act allows for exemptions on religious grounds. The minimum age for Muslim marriages is 12 years, while the minimum age for Hindu marriages is 16 years.

"Usually what happens is that the girls, when they get pregnant, they don't go to school anymore. So they start a life where they have to take care of the babies, and then their future and their lives are not developed as they want it to happen," said assistant representative for UNFPA Sub-Regional Office Aurora Noguera-Ramkissoon.

She said that the reluctance of some faith-based organisations to accept the health and family life education programmes in schools has been one of the contributing factors to the high teen pregnancy rate in the Caribbean.

As it relates to Latin American countries, it was noted that child marriages had more to do with status than anything else.

"So girls getting married young, that is a status that is acquired as part of the young groups that make the gangs," explained UNFPA regional communications adviser for Latin America and the Caribbean, Alvaro Serrano.

According to the UNFPA 2013 report, titled 'Motherhood In Childhood: Facing the challenge of adolescent pregnancy', the Caribbean ranks second only to continental Africa in the number of adolescent girls being pregnant under 18 years old annually. Approximately 20 per cent of young girls across the region reported having their first pregnancy as adolescents.

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