Protecting Childhood: Motion on the Marriage Age

Wednesday, 25th June 2014

“That Seanad Éireann:

– notes the need to ensure adequate protection of children and of children’s rights in our laws, and in particular to ensure that children are not coerced or forced into ‘arranged’ marriages;
– notes that sections 31 and 33 of the Family Law Act 1995 allow exemptions from the normal rule that parties to a legal marriage must be over 18; and that the possibility of seeking this exemption by way of court order was retained in section 2(2) of the Civil Registration Act 2004;
– notes further that this exemption was criticised by the High Court in a judgment in June 2013 in a case concerning an ‘arranged’ marriage; and
– proposes that the Government would consider whether to remove or amend the statutory provision allowing minors to marry on the basis of a court exemption.”

Senator Jillian van Turnhout:

I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I would like to thank Senator Bacik, who like me has worked on this issue, for initiating the motion before us. I am very happy to second the motion and thank her for her co-operation.

I raised this issue back in May during the Seanad debate on the abducted schoolgirls in Nigeria that Boko Haram had threatened to sell into forced marriage. Like many people, I felt helpless looking on at the situation and it made me wonder if there was anything we could do. For me, this is one area that we can do something about. We can send the clear message that the age for marriage is 18. That is something that we must take responsibility for doing. During the debate I made the worrying correlation between Nigeria and Ireland because, in certain court ordered special circumstances, exemptions to the ordinary legal age for marriage of 18 years can be made. That means Ireland does not currently prohibit all child marriages.

It is important to note that Ireland is bound by a number of international human rights laws and standards, the provisions of which are profoundly incompatible with child marriage, for example, the International Bill of Human Rights, the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, CEDAW, the Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery, the slave trade, and institutions and practices similar to slavery.

In September 2013, Ireland, with its fellow EU member states, supported the United Nations Human Rights Council resolution, Strengthening Efforts to Prevent and Eliminate Child, Early and Forced Marriage: challenges, achievements, best practice, and implementation gaps. The European Union as a negotiating block at the international fora condemns the prevalence of child marriages yet makes provision for it in a number of its own jurisdictions, for example, in Germany and Italy. In Germany, if one of the parties to be wed is at least 16 years old, but not yet 18 years old, the German age of emancipation, that party needs to seek approval from the family court in order to be wed. Consent of the concerned party’s parents is not sufficient. In Italy, a sworn statement of consent to the marriage is required by the parents or legal guardian if the child is under the age of 18.

Exploitation of young girls through violence and abuse, including forced and arranged marriages, is a global problem. According to Girls not Brides, every year, approximately 14 million girls are married before they turn 18 across countries, cultures and religions. They are robbed of their childhood and denied their rights to health, education and security. According to UNFPA, by 2030, the number of child brides marrying each year will have grown from 14.2 million in 2010 to 15.1 million, a 14% rise if the current trend continue.

In March 2014, the Iraqi Justice Minister tabled a Bill to allow girls as young as nine years old to marry. While reports have indicated that it is unlikely that the law will pass, it represents a worrying trend toward religious tendencies usurping girls’ human rights. In response to the Bill, prominent Iraqi human rights activist Hana Adwar said: “The law represents a crime against humanity and childhood. Married underage girls are subjected to physical and psychological suffering.” This contention is known to be true. The more than 60 million girls married under the age of 18 worldwide have a higher risk of death and injury during childbirth, fewer marketable skills, lower lifetime income, a higher rate of HIV, exposure to domestic violence, and illness for themselves and their families than their unwed peers.

It is inappropriate and, frankly, contradictory that we in Ireland speak out against child marriage in countries such as India, Nigeria, Malawi, Iraq, Nepal, Ethiopia and Bangladesh while our Statute Book still allows for exemptions to the normal marriage age, and fails to specify a minimum age for such exemptions. As outlined by Senator Ivana Bacik in 2012, some 28 marriages were registered under the exemption. As stated by the Senator, the exemption threshold is very broad and it uses standard language giving the court wide discretion. This means that decisions pertaining to allowing children to marry are made behind closed doors, often subject to the in camera rule since the parties to the application are children. Yet, from the moment they are married, they become adults and are outside all the child protection laws. We never hear about those decisions and those vulnerable children. In this regard, the Family Law Reporting Project has come across many of these cases, and may be able to shine a light on the prevalence and general circumstances in which they occur.

There is no written judgment in the High Court case referenced in this motion. The case concerns the annulment of a 16 year old girl’s marriage to a 29 year old man on the basis of the girl’s lack of capacity to give true consent. How can a 16 year old girl give consent to a marriage to a 29 year old man? I am not speaking of a case in Iraq but in Ireland. This happened in Ireland. However, Mr. Justice MacMenamin felt the case raised concerns of such a magnitude that it warranted his making a general comment about the danger of the legal loophole to children. We are faced with a choice. As the Legislature, we must provide guidance for the courts to implement the statutory provisions as intended or, and this would be my preference, we can lead by example and remove or amend the statutory provision currently allowing minors to marry. I believe Ireland should send a clear signal to children here that we protect childhood and that the age for marriage is 18 years. We have had excellent debates here on protecting childhood. We are talking about consent, the age for which should be set at 18 years. That would mean that Ireland, as part of the European Union as a negotiating block, is not saying that it can understand cultural differences and our courts can adjudicate, but we do not trust the courts in other countries. We need to send out a message that we are setting the age at 18 years without exemption.

Link to full debate here.

Address to Seanad Éireann by Ms Catherine McGuinness on Children’s Rights in Ireland

Thursday, 19th June 2014

“I welcome Judge Catherine McGuinness. It was a joy to listen to her, but her words have provided us with a stark reminder and challenged us in this House for work ahead. I note her work on the Children’s Rights Alliance Report Card, and she rightly pointed to the work of Tanya Ward, Maria Corbett and all the team at the Children’s Rights Alliance. She also pointed to work of the member organisations of the Children’s Rights Alliance which come together to provide evidence and put together the Report Card. I am delighted to welcome representatives of many of them to the Gallery. In fact, we could not fit them all in, so there are people in the wings waiting and listening. I could use up all my time listing every organisation, but I want to focus on some current issues. I want also to note the work being done by the Special Rapporteur on Child Protection, Geoffrey Shannon, and his annual report. His report and that of the Children’s Rights Alliance provide an invaluable tool for me as a legislator and policymaker. It is good to see that the state supports these initiatives.

The programme for Government 2011 to 2016 set out an ambitious reform agenda for children and family services. Senator Bacik has listed many of the things that have been accomplished since then. Equally, there are areas of concern that impact on the daily lives of children and we need to shine a light on those. As I am sure Ms McGuinness and my colleagues in this House will know, I am strongly committed to pursuing the gamut of children’s rights through my “senatorship”. We have had in this Senate excellent debates on children’s rights, most recently on beauty pageants and protecting childhood. In the autumn, we had a interesting debate on direct provision and valuing youth work. They were really good, informative debates and I pay tribute to my colleagues.

Other speakers have mentioned survivors. When I have met survivors over the years – we were campaigning before the children’s rights referendum became a reality – many said to me that the real testament would be to see children’s rights articulated in the Constitution of Ireland. Chief among the advancements that we have made was the passage of the children’s rights referendum on 10 November 2012. Unfortunately, the enactment of the amendment Bill, the will of Irish people, has been subject to lengthy postponement pending finalisation of the second part of a legal challenge by Mr. Justice McDermott in the High Court before a full appeal can proceed to the Supreme Court. The delay in the legal process is a source of frustration when I think of the body of legislation that has been passed since November 2011 that could have benefited from a constitutionally recognised best interests of the child principle. I also feel sadness when I think of the number of children of married parents, many of whom have spent the vast majority of their childhoods in the care system, who have now turned 18 since we voted as the people of Ireland and are eligible for adoption. Their rights have been expunged. It is my sincere hope that priority is given to the delivery of the judgment in the High Court, that the challenge will be given priority listing in the Supreme Court and that it is ruled upon as expediently as possible.

While Ms McGuinness is before us, I want to address two specific issues that are facing children today and seek her guidance. Chapter 5.4 of the Children’s Rights Alliance Report Card looks at children in detention. It states that, according to a communication that the alliance received from the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, 103 young people were detained on remand in 2013 for 138 different periods ranging from one day to several months. We have to bear in mind that a young person may be remanded more than once pending the outcome of proceedings. The number of children detained on remand, particularly the significant percentage of them who do not go on to receive a custodial sentence, raises serious concerns about Ireland’s compliance with the international and domestic principles of detention as a last resort for children, which incorporate a presumption against detention of children accused of criminal offences. I want to ask Judge McGuinness’s opinion on the practice of the Children Court of remanding children for assessment despite section 88(13) of the Children’s Act clearly stipulating that the court should not remand a child in detention on the basis solely of care or protection concerns. I want to ask her how the absence of a formal system of bail support and services in Ireland impacts on a child’s ability to meet their bail conditions, with the consequent risk of their receiving a custodial remand for failure to comply.

The second issue that I want to raise is that of direct provision, which Ms McGuinness mentioned. Chapter 6 of the Report Card opens with a piece by Dr. Liam Thornton entitled, “Closing Our Eyes: Irish Society and Direct Provision”. Dr. Thornton has done some excellent work, as have many NGOs such as the Irish Refugee Council and Doras Luimní. I put forward a motion on direct provision in this House last October. We were all at one on this issue. Unfortunately, the Minister then was not at one with us, but we will keep pursuing it and we have a very good Seanad cross-party group working on the issue. We know the high number of children who are in the 34 direct provision accommodation centres. Can Ms McGuinness give us advice on what immediate action could provide greater protection to children who are caught in the direct provision system? What could we do in the immediate future? All Senators in this House have agreed that such centres are not places for a child to be accommodated, especially beyond three-month or six-month period. I thank Ms McGuinness again for her address. She has given us many challenges.”

Full debate transcript available here

Mother and Baby Homes: Statements

Wednesday, 11th June 2014

I warmly welcome the Minister to the House. Everyone in the Chamber will agree that the recent revelations are yet another deplorable stain on our collective conscience. In preparing for my statement, my personal shame as a member of the collective that turned a blind eye to the abuse and suffering of women and children, out of fear and deference to the powerful, is as acute as ever before. It is the same shame I felt reading each of the reports – Ferns, Ryan, Murphy and Cloyne – into the systematic abuse and exploitation of vulnerable children in State and church institutions in Ireland. It is the same shame I felt reading the harrowing testimony from survivors of the Magdalen laundries and symphysiotomy procedures performed by medical professionals in Irish hospitals.

I share the overwhelming sense of shame and compunction over the unthinkable fate suffered by our sisters, cousins, friends and daughters labelled “fallen women” by church and community for becoming pregnant out of marriage and sent to these homes for their sins and rehabilitation. The isolation, hardship and suffering to which these young women were subjected in the name of honour and respectability is almost unthinkable in contemporary Ireland. How many of these young women fell pregnant against their will, by way of rape, incest and familial abuse, and found themselves arbitrarily and extra-judicially detained in these homes? It is the worst injustice imaginable when the victim is punished. It reminds me of punishment by stoning for adultery under Sharia law for women who have been raped.

Due to the time limit, I will limit my main observations to the issue of adoption, including the legality of adoptions prior to the Adoption Act 1952. Although the national adoption contact preference register contains data on only a small number of adoptions, the 2011 Adoption Authority of Ireland audit of the records found 50 cases of illegal adoptions. Given that the vast majority of adoption records are held by the Health Service Executive, HSE, and Child and Family Agency, CFA, we have seen only the tip of the iceberg of illegal adoptions. The area of adoption legality is extremely complex and technical and the commission will need an expert on adoption law to deal with what is likely to be a huge body of work. The Mahon tribunal had two to three experts working together.

So many of the issues thrown up by the mother and baby homes are not just legacies of the past but prevailing issues today, from which an examination of the past can yield lessons for legislation and policy today. Earlier today, I met several survivor groups, and we must ensure any inquiry, and the process to establish it, will hear their voices and involve them. The latest revelations have once again brought to the fore the trauma and suffering of many of the survivors. We must ensure we care for the living. I welcome, so early in the Minister’s new term of office, his speedy and committed response to establish a statutory commission of investigation. We are all waiting to find out the scope of the inquiry and which homes and what period will be included. Will the State take responsibility for collating all the records or will it do the same as in the report into the Magdalen laundries, namely, receive the records and then return them to the church-run institutions?

The inquiry must deal with many inter-related matters. The prevailing issues are adoption, the right to identity, lone parents, the role of women, poverty, social strata, and the rights of unmarried fathers, whose names are still not necessarily recorded on birth certificates. Will the investigation have the resources it needs and the appropriate expertise to deal with the myriad issues I have outlined? We must find a way to prioritise the truths from which there can be learning. We have recently seen the role social historians and archivists have played and can continue to play in investigative teams. Can we learn from the Murphy report experience? Should the inquiry find a way to do its work by sampling to find the appropriate balance between truth, expediency, bearing witness, and establishing and identifying causal and contributing factors, thereby maximising the scope to learn lessons?

Lest we forget, each and every one of these children had a name, and to ensure they get the memorial they deserve, their names must be listed in their honour. They are the children we promised, at the formation of the State, to cherish equally.

The Lancet

In July 2021, Jillian co-authored an article in the world-renowned medical journal “The Lancet”