In Guyana, as in other countries, laws serve a variety of purposes. Most importantly, they allow order to prevail and have maintained peace in most states. Laws act as deterrents to crime and other wrongdoing. They could prevent harm and provide justice through the imposition of penalties to those who commit offences. Laws must be coherent to fulfill any of these functions. They must not be confused, unclear or send mixed signals. The law is the law. Or at least, that is how it should be.
However, the same laws that protect the rights of children allow adults to marry them under the age of consent, especially in the rural areas of the country. There needs to be an honest discussion on child marriage, but the authorities are very careful not to make a definitive pronouncement on the issue, one way or the other. It may be a taboo subject for the government to discuss because it may face criticism from some religious groups which claim it is part of their culture and they have the right to protect it.
But there should not be any sacred cows. The rights to religion must be balanced by the interest of society and tempered by reason and rationality. The State must uphold such rights, particularly in relation to the well-being of children, even if it makes it unpopular. Unfortunately, recent statistics on the prevalence of child marriage in Guyana are apparently not available, but it is estimated that there were 433 child marriages in 2010.
Some believe that child marriage is an abuse to children because it impacts their right to a healthy and long life, as maternal deaths are higher among child brides. It also infringes on a child’s right to survival and development, especially in education and leisure. In most cases, a child’s right to be heard is often denied by parents who arrange the marriages without taking the child’s views into consideration. It could be considered a form of exploitation that inhibits the freedom and well-being of children.
While ancient traditions may have authorized child marriage, the psychological impact on the child is not fully known since several studies have been inconclusive on the issue. There have been calls by the United Nations to end the practice. However, unless this issue is tackled by the local authorities, the nation will continue to deny children their rights.
Child marriage is a violation of several areas of child rights, in that it discriminates; as it affects disproportionally more girls than boys and, mainly, the poor and rural child. In any lawful society, religious laws or beliefs should not trump the laws of the state or the child’s human rights.
Child marriage is a vexing issue for some groups which claim that the state is selective about implementing child rights. In doing so, the state has invalidated its ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), which it signed along with 190 countries in 1989. The UNCRC is a human rights treaty which establishes the civil, political, economic, social, health and cultural rights of children. It defines a child as human under the age of eighteen, unless the age of majority is attained earlier under a state’s own domestic legislation.
The Convention acknowledges that children have certain basic rights, including the right to life, their own name and identity, to be raised by their parents within a family or cultural grouping, and to have a relationship with both parents, even if they are separated or divorced.
It obliges all states to allow parents to exercise their parental responsibilities and acknowledges that children have the right to express their opinions and to have those opinions heard and acted upon when appropriate. It also states that children must be protected from abuse, exploitation, and their lives must not be subjected to excessive interference. It forbids the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography. Child rights are universal, inalienable, unconditional and inherent.
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