Sunday, Jul 21, 2019
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It’s time to stop calling children illegitimate

Dear Editor,

A cursory review of the draft Nationality and Immigration Bill currently making consultation rounds reveals one glaring example of our national hypocrisy.

As we tinker with this important issue, we continue to turn a blind eye to, and subsequently to codify our blatant prejudice against, the overwhelming majority of Bahamians who are born to unwed mothers.

The prime minister has vowed to correct the gender inequalities in current laws, but this bill still divvies up rights on the basis of who was born “legitimately” versus those born “illegitimately”.

In a nation of avowed and sometimes serial “sweet-hearters”, six in every 10 births are to unwed mothers. It would be great if the legal scholars who drafted this bill could first ask government to pass an act to outlaw the very concept of illegitimate children.

One of the legacies left by Michael Manley, prime minister of Jamaica, was his passage in 1976 of the Status of Children Act (since amended in 1993 and 2005) which did away with the inhumane label of illegitimacy.

No child has any say in the circumstances of his/her birth and it is wrong for society in 2019 to still be governed by rules which pass judgement on acts of commission or omission by their parents.

The Jamaican law speaks to a child born out of wedlock. And it made the law retroactive, giving a wide sweep to their intent.

It applies to children “whether born in Jamaica or not, and whether or not the father or mother has ever been domiciled in Jamaica”.

What Manley did was to tell the world that in Jamaica every person is equal. In fact, the law never refers to a “child” rather, it elevates their status to that of “person” as, by its retroactivity, it covered all adult Jamaicans.

In giving a child personhood, they established the right to dignity and equal treatment regardless of the nature of their birth or the status of the relationship in which they were born.

In the United States, the concept of illegitimacy has no currency since all children at birth are guaranteed equal protection under the 14th Amendment of their constitution. Their children born out of wedlock can inherit property.

It is a safe bet that some in the church will argue that this rewards profligacy and undermines biblical teaching on the sanctity of marriage. But even the church elders must grudgingly accept that our laws do not reflect current society and in fact follow a tradition dating back to slavery when slaves simply were barred from getting married.

The English codified the laws and for a long time they used the term “bastard” to refer to children born to unwed mothers. Wales always took a different tack, using the term “bastard” only for a child not acknowledged by his/her father.

Even today English law on immigration mirrors our own especially with regard to citizenship. It wasn’t until 2014 that Britain changed the law which had stated that, “No child born outside marriage could inherit British citizenship from their father, only from their mother.” Notably, they still excluded children of fathers from British Overseas Territories like Turks and Caicos, Bermuda and the Cayman Islands. They are still denied UK citizenship.

What brought about the change in 2014 was pressure from the UK parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights and the European Court of Human Rights (to which they will no longer be beholden if Brexit is ever fully implemented).

It would be helpful if local human rights campaigners would lobby for change to our laws to uphold the dignity of all children and to recognize reality.

To most Bahamians the consequences of this difference in terminology never arises. But changing the law would speak volumes of the things we value as a society.

We could end once and for all terms like “outside child” and “half-brother or -sister”. There will still be deadbeat dads and vindictive moms. But the science of DNA testing is highly accurate, and all children should eventually have the names of their mother and father on their birth certificates.

And if in the box on citizenship either one of the unmarried parents can check “Bahamian”, that child should be granted the same welcome to the commonwealth as the child whose parents can check the box marked “married”.

The dictionary describes “illegitimate” as not authorized by law. It’s time to change the law.

 

– The Graduate

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