Saturday Star gets a GLAD for its sensitive, balanced and informative approach to the pregnancy and marriage of a 15-year-old Muslim girl.
In the article “Government steps in as married mother, now 15, goes back to school” (Saturday Star, 12/02/2011, p. 7), the paper told the story of how a 13-year-old Muslim child became pregnant and then got married at the age of 14. This issue was brought to the local authorities attention when, at 15, the girl wanted to go back to school.
Crucially the girl’s identity was protected. She was not named and nor were her parents and husband. This was consistent with the child’s best interests.
The article explained all of the elements involved including that:
· It is a criminal offence for anyone to have consensual sex with a child who is under 16;
· According to the Children’s Act, children under 18 can only be married when special permission is sought and given, including in some cases by the Minister of Home Affairs;
· The Recognition of Customary Marriages Act requires that spouses be 18;
· But the Muslim Marriage Bill, which is currently being debated, sets no age limit.
A clear dilemma for the local authorities, who are tasked with upholding the laws designed to protect the child, was explored in the article.
The child’s parents were quoted explaining that when their daughter became pregnant they believed that she had to get married saying “the religion is clear…marriage is the only way to make things right.” However, Moulana Abdul Sattaag Carr, the Muslim Judicial Council’s Head of Development, was also accessed and explained that whether a child who gets pregnant should marry depends on the circumstances, and where for example “the couple does not share a loving relationship or where it is not economically viable, they should not get married.”
The child herself was also quoted as saying “I love being married, it is very nice.” This should be commended as the child was given an opportunity to express herself and add her voice to the issue at hand.
The one area that Media Monitoring Africa (MMA) would like to have seen further explored was the blame apparently attributed to the child. The mother’s perception that the pregnancy was her child’s fault was mentioned twice in the article. The mother was quoted saying “when a child messes up, marriage is the only way to make it right” and the child was described as having “made a mistake.” However the culpability of her partner who was a “middle-aged man” was not explored in any depth.
Nevertheless, this article did an excellent job of unpacking the issues involved in this minor’s marriage. What is evident from this piece is that issues of culture are complex, and can be difficult to navigate.
The article did not take an obvious side in this debate, but explained the issues clearly and in the context of existing and pending legislation. This gave the reader plenty of food for thought, while protecting the child’s rights to privacy and participation.