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Senate quashes House bill that would change the marriage age of females from 14 to 18

Rendering of proposed new Fono Building [SN file photo]


by Fili Sagapolutele

Samoa News Correspondent

Pago Pago, AMERICAN SAMOA — Senate legal counsel Mitzie Jessop-Ta’ase says a proposed law to raise the marriage age of females from 14 to 18, “aligns” with other current laws, such as the criminal code and the age of a person who can vote in American Samoa.

Jessop-Ta’ase was the sole witness at last Thursday’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the House approved bill, amending current laws, raising the female marriage age from 14 to 18. In addition, if the male or female is under 18, but not younger than 16 years of age, both — male/female — must have the consent of a parent or guardian.

The Senate rejected the House bill on Monday, in a vote of 7- 9. The bill needed at least 11 votes to pass.

During the Senate hearing, Jessop-Ta’ase said the bill provides “good changes” to current law to protect “our children”. Additionally, the proposed amendments are in accordance with other local laws.

In a rape case, for example, a victim under 16-years old does not need to give consent to a sexual relation, when it comes to the government charging a defendant.  She explained that the consent age is 17 years, under local law.

She added that the proposed amendment is in line with another law, in which the person is charged as an adult if that individual is 18-years old and older. Furthermore, the voting age is 18 and driver’s licenses are issued to people 18 years old and over.

Therefore, she said the proposed amendment “aligns” with many current laws.

Responding to a committee question for further clarification on the “consent age”, Jessop-Ta’ase explained that current law allows a 14-year-old to get married as long as she has the consent of one parent or legal guardian.

However, in the criminal code statute, “consent age is 17 years old” and therefore any consensual sexual relationship between a man and a girl who is under 17-years old is considered a crime, even if the girl claims to have consent to the relationship, said Jessop-Ta’ase, who served as a government prosecutor for many years before joining the Fono’s legal team.

Among the many issues raised by senators during the hearing is what happens to a female who is 16 years old or younger who becomes pregnant, and the parents of the girl give their consent for the girl to marry the father of her unborn child. Some senators claim this has happened before and will happen again, as parents want to “fa’amama”, or make clean, the young girl by marrying her off to the father of her unborn child.

Jessop-Ta’ase said this is then a “conflict” with the criminal code statute. She said the House bill “removes this conflict”.

She said she is not aware of any cases during her tenure at the Attorney General’s Office, where a 14-year-old girl was married off, with a complaint or charges filed by the government.

While there were no specific statistics available at the time of the hearing as to how many girls between the ages of 14 and 16 years old were married off with the consent of their parents, Jessop-Ta’ase pointed out that the Office of Vital Statistics is responsible for issuing marriage licenses and therefore conduct research before such license is issued.

And it's also the Office of Vital Statistics that checks to ensure that the couple seeking a marriage license are not close-blood related, she said, responding to a question from the committee pertaining to a provision of current law which states that the parties entering into marriage “must not be related to each other nearer than the fourth degree of consanguinity”.

She explained that this refers to a fourth generation relative. For clarification: first cousin, second cousin, and third cousin is prohibited, she said, prompting a bit of laughter from some senators and others in the Senate gallery.

Sen. Fonoti Tafa’ifa Aufata, the lone female senator, said she is very saddened with today’s youngsters, causing many problems and their unacceptable behaviors. Fonoti puts the blame of teenage problems on parents, who are the first teachers of any child.

She claims that teenage problems occur when the father is spending too much time at the house of his “standby wife” and the mother is on the phone with her “stand-by husband” while ignoring the children. She said there are too many women getting into the habit of having “standby husbands” and extra-martial affairs.

Sen. Satele Galu Satele Sr. claims that some parents have given up — “ua fiu matua” — on their children. He said today’s youth are very difficult and would do whatever they want, despite all efforts by parents.

He said he believes the current law is sufficient and there’s no need for to amend it. There was consensus from other senators, who believe that further research is needed on the proposal. It didn’t escape during the hearing, concerns about high teen pregnancy cases in the territory in the past years.

Sen. Magalei Logovi’i said the House bill is very simple - it's “to protect our young children,” and the youngsters “are not prepared for marriage at a young age” such as 14 years old.

Samoa News will report later this week on other comments made during the hearing and a response from the lawmaker, who sponsored the bill.