Seanad debates

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

2:30 pm

Photo of Imelda HenryImelda Henry (Fine Gael) | Oireachtas source

I welcome the Minister. As spokesperson for children I welcome the motion, for which I thank Senator Ivana Bacik and Senator Jillian van Turnhout. It goes without saying that all children in the State should have adequate protection of their rights. The Family Law Act 1995 provides that the minimum legal age at which people can get married in Ireland is 18. However, section 33 allows a couple to apply to the court for an exemption from this rule where one or both are aged 18 or under. I hate to admit it but I was unaware that this happened. As a mother of a 17 year old girl I would be horrified at the thought that she would be able to marry. I would be equally horrified if my son was legally able to marry at 16 years of age.

Anybody who deals with teenagers knows they change from day to day. They go from being big fans of One Direction to suddenly being big fans of The Script and vehemently deny they ever liked One Direction because it is for children. They change. They are maturing and exploring life and all it has to offer. They change from week to week. Marriage is a lifelong commitment. At 16 years of age our children are vastly different from what they will be at 18 years of age. Frankly, I find the data from the Central Statistics Office very worrying. In 2012, some 28 marriages were registered where either the bride or groom or both were under the age of 18. In the majority, 21 cases, the bride was 16 or 17 years of age and the groom was 18 years or over.

International human rights bodies have agreed that 18 is the appropriate minimum age for marriage. A UN report shows that since 1994 more than 158 countries have passed legislation raising the minimum age of marriage to 18 years. I am mindful that Irish society has an increased cultural and religious diversity. This is a good thing because for too long we were influenced by one all powerful church. However, some religions have a culture of arranged marriages. That is fine - each to their own. However, when it comes to a child under the age of 18, I wonder if he or she has enough maturity to make a decision that potentially ties him or her to someone for the rest of his or her life. If a girl or a boy is getting married at 16 or 17 years of age, it is highly unlikely that they are financially independent of their parents and, therefore, are vulnerable to parental coersion. There is no legislation in place in Ireland which addresses the issue of forced marriages or marriages where there is no real consent.

We are here as legislators and many of us are parents. I am aware that a High Court judge recently expressed concern at exemptions to marriage age restrictions following a court annulment of an arranged marriage, as Senator Jillian van Turnhout said, of a 16 year old girl to a 29 year old man. The judge further said that the system for seeking exemptions from the legal age limit for marriage needs review. The judge is right and I agree with him. I welcome the motion.


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