Wednesday, 25 June 2014
Child Protection: Motion
I thank all my colleagues for their support and the Minister of State for taking the motion and responding so positively to it. As I said earlier, it is an historic debate. It is the first time either House of the Oireachtas has debated the issue of forced marriage or child marriage. I thank all those who contributed. Senator van Turnhout really eloquently placed this motion in the international context, in particular referring to the horrific abduction of the school girls in Nigeria by Boko Haram. As Senator Hayden pointed out, sadly, we see even more abductions taking place today. These abductions are for what has been referred to as forced marriage but it is really not marriage at all but slavery. The Minister of State and others made the point that where people are coerced or forced into marriage, it is not marriage and it is not a contract entered into freely.
Child marriage is not necessarily the same as forced marriage but Senator van Turnhout pointed out to me that child marriage may well be regarded as socially licensed sexual abuse and exploitation of a child. If we look at the international figures, it is a persistent form of sanctioned sexual abuse of girls and young women. Some of the international figures we have seen are really very startling. A UNFPA report from 2012 states that one in nine girls will be married before their 15th birthday in a developing country and one in three before they are 18. It is a very widespread practice and clearly not in the best interest of the girls, their families or their children.
The Minister of State pointed out that an arranged marriage may not be either a child marriage or a forced marriage and he is right that we need to be careful about language. However, a child marriage and a forced marriage will often be an arranged marriage too. Clearly, there are issues about how we deal with this.
Senator Henry spoke about her own experiences as the mother of a 17 year old daughter. As the mother of an eight year old daughter and a six year old daughter, I can only say that they change from being One Direction fans much younger than in the teenage years. Senator Henry was right to point out the rapid change of children and the need to preserve and protect childhood. Senator O'Keeffe referred to issues around poverty and gender discrimination which clearly are at issue here in the broader context.
Senator Naughten reminded us that Mr. Justice MacMenamin is now on the Supreme Court and has a very proud record of expertise in child law and child protection issues. I go back to his words because he pointed out in his judgment in 2013, to which I referred, that bearing in mind the increased cultural and religious diversity in Irish society and the significance afforded by the Constitution to equality, the status and rights of children and the institution of marriage, legislation may be necessary to address and support the position of very young people in situations where a marriage appears to be arranged in some way and where a child is involved.
Senator Hayden referred to forced marriage as slavery and I think that is the correct expression to use. Senator MacSharry referred to the link between forced marriage and trafficking because clearly that is a real issue too. I thank Senator MacSharry for expressing the support of his party for the motion.
Senator Moran referred to the need for cross-party support and her direct experience of seeing a child entering marriage. That brings home to all us, as do the CSO figures, that this is a reality in Ireland and that children enter marriages in Ireland. The Minister of State referred to other figures from 2013 which showed 28 marriages where one or both parties were under 18. We need to be clear that this is not just something that happens in other countries.
What can we do about this? This motion has really put it up to Government to consider whether to remove or amend section 33. I remind colleagues that section 33 allows the Circuit Court, by order, to exempt a marriage from the rule that both parties must be 18 or over. The only provisions relating to the application are that it may be made informally, which really offers very little protection to a child, it may be heard and determined otherwise than in public - we heard that, in practice, these applications are made in private - no court fee is charged and that it shall not be granted unless the applicant shows that its grant is justified by serious reasons and is in the interests of the parties to the intended marriage, which is taken from the UN convention. As I said, no other guidance is offered to a judge in dealing with the application, nor is there any provision for a judge to seek the views of the HSE where there is HSE involvement or to refer the matter to the HSE or to a child protection agency even where the judge may be concerned.
While other jurisdictions, including Britain, continue to allow exemptions on court application, what we tend to see is a much greater raft of protective measures for the child who is seeking the exemption. As I explained, there is specific criminal law criminalising forced marriage in Britain but I do not think our legislation on coercion, false imprisonment and so on, helpful though it is, is specifically aimed at criminalising the practice of forcing someone into marriage nor does it apply extra-territorially, and Senator Hayden referred to that. Our female genital mutilation Bill, which I initiated in this House, has an extra-territorial effect. The British law on forced marriage makes it an offence to force someone to marry abroad as well as in Britain. We need to look at our package of legislation providing for protections for children if we are to keep a facility for an exemption. Frankly, I would prefer if we did not maintain the facility for exemption. Other countries in Europe may do so but, as I said, they have other protections in place. We should be world leaders in child protection.
I welcome the fact that a small inter-departmental group will be set up to examine all options for reform and amendment, including the option of abolition of the facility for exemption. I would like to see a firm time line. We will hold the Minister of State to it and between the Labour Party Senators and Senator van Turnhout's group, we will certainly return to this issue in Private Members' time if we do not see movement on it at Government level. We are clear that some legislation is needed to reform section 33 and I hope it will be initiated in the Seanad given that we have initiated this debate. I thank all colleagues for their support for this important motion and the Minister of State for his commitment to take up this issue and, I hope, ensuring we become world leaders in child protection.