Hitched in high school
Two high-school students who tied the knot in December last year would have been denied the opportunity to become man and wife if a recommendation from the Office of the Children's Advocate (OCA), to move the age of consent and marriage to 18 years, had been made and acted on before their wedding day.
Eyebrows were raised yesterday, during a meeting of a joint select committee of Parliament reviewing the Sexual Offences Act and other related pieces of legislation, when Children's Advocate Diahann Gordon Harrison revealed that her office was called in by the education ministry last year to investigate a proposal for marriage between a 17-year-old fifth former and a 16-year-old in fourth form.
The young couple is to celebrate their first wedding anniversary on December 28.
The name of the high school they were attending at the time of their nuptials was not disclosed.
Currently, under Jamaican law, persons younger than 18 years old can get married with the permission of their parents.
Gordon Harrison told the committee that a male child had proposed to a female, and she accepted. According to the children's advocate, the late December date caught her office at a very awkward time. However, the agency scrambled to peruse the Education Act and the Education Code as well as the Marriage Act but discovered that neither contemplated such a situation.
With the young couple making such a far-reaching decision, the OCA visited the homes of both children and interviewed both sets of parents to ensure that there was genuine parental consent and "look at the general circumstances, to see if this would
accord with the best interest of the child".
Gordon Harrison indicated that there was no legal basis "to say that the marriage could not proceed and they are now in fact married".
"That is one situation that raises the question of whether we should increase the age of consent," she said.
"My submission is that to ensure that there is consistency and congruence, if it is that we are to move the age of consent to 18, the age of marriage should also be looked at carefully and increased," she asserted.
Gordon Harrison argued that, even if parents feel that children are mature enough to make certain decisions at 16 years old, they are not ready to be exposed to all the consequences of sexual activity.
The Children's Advocate added that new medical research, which was not available at the time the Marriage Act was being drafted, has shown that sexual activity should be delayed until 18 and above.
In its submission earlier, the OCA contended that while it was cognisant of the anatomical changes in a child's body, which biologically occurs at or about 16 years of age, physical and hormonal maturity do not equate to psychological, social or emotional maturity.
In this regard, the OCA said the law should protect all children and not just those 15 years and younger.
She insisted that with the age of consent being 16 years, and the age of maturity being 18 years - when a person is no longer legally considered a child - "it may be credibly argued that an anomaly is created when children who are 16 years are not considered intellectually or otherwise mature enough to make independent decisions such as who should govern their country for a five-year term, yet they are given the legal authority to engage in sexual activity".
Further, she said, in contrast, a 16-year-old is empowered under Jamaican law to make a decision that could have a potentially life-long personal effect, such as if they were to contract any serious communicable, sexually transmitted disease or become pregnant.
"This contradiction is confusing our children and should be rectified."
Love March Movement, a group with a strong following of young people, also proposed during the committee's deliberations that the age of consent be increased to 18 years.