Wednesday, 25 June 2014
Child Protection: Motion
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy O'Dowd, back to the House. I also wish to commend Senator Bacik for proposing this motion and Senator van Turnhout for seconding it. It is a good day for the Seanad when we can have cross-party support for important issues such as this one.
It is disappointing that in 2014, young girls of all nationalities and backgrounds are being coerced into marriage in various parts of the world. Our current legislation provides that the minimum legal age for marriage is 18, but there is a possibility for an exemption when one or both individuals seeking to marry are under 18. It has been agreed by a number of reputable and highly-regarded bodies that 18 years is the appropriate minimum age for marriage. This has also been agreed internationally in 158 countries where legislation has been passed to raise the minimum age to 18.
While the practice of under-18 marriages in Ireland is not as prevalent as it once was, many people in communities across Ireland are still aware of individual cases where a girl under 18 has entered into marriage. I am personally aware of this occurring in my role as a teacher. I remember having one pupil who belonged to a family where, as they reached the age of 16, the girls went into arranged marriages. Not only were they being married as children, but they were often moved out of the town as well.
I remember one child to whom I taught music. She had never played an instrument before but was very bright and took to music very well. She came with me - it was her first time on a bus or an aeroplane - to play at an international competition. When I resumed teaching in September that year, I was shocked to discover that this little one was married. The following year I met her when she travelled from Dublin to Dundalk for the day with twins in tow. This child was barely 17, yet she was married and had two children. That was a few years ago, but it certainly brought home the situation to me, although she was quite happy. However, I think of the opportunities we are losing due to the cultural differences involved. I feel that we ought to let our children be children until they are at least 18.
If the minimum age for marriage was raised to 18, without exemption, we would be able to provide these safeguards and the possibilities of further opportunities for such girls. When a child is forced into marriage they are stripped of their precious childhood years. They are forced to grow up immediately and are exposed to adult realities. As everybody else here agrees, that is completely unacceptable and wholly unfair. These girls are given very little respect for their own abilities and worth.
I have already referred to a particular girl whom I had the good fortune to teach, but she was not unhappy.
She was quite happy but she was 17 years of age and had two small babies. I hope she had the opportunity to go back to education and be the person I know she could be.
It is estimated that 400 young women are trafficked into the country for the purpose of forced marriage, something of which I was not aware. I recall a number of years ago hearing reports of migrant children as young as 12 years of age being forced into marriage. The exemption currently provided under the law does not provide for an appropriate protection for minors involved. It is surprising that there are no guidelines or criteria for the granting of an exemption and no provision for minors to be represented at these hearings. What further worries me is that child protection authorities do not have to be notified in the case of an exemption. That is very serious and a change is needed.
The Minister of State noted that the incidence of forced marriage is very rare in Ireland but I put it to him that we may be unaware of many cases. Even one incidence is one too many. It is positive that an inter-departmental group will be formed to consider this issue and I put it to the House that we follow up on this matter immediately when we come back in the autumn and include it in the legislative programme.
We have had numerous motions in the House concerning child welfare. I thank Senator Bacik and my Labour Party colleagues and Senator van Turnhout for seconding the motion. I join with them in asking the Government to consider removing or amending the provision allowing minors to marry on the basis of a court exemption.