Wednesday, 27 November 2013

The Age of Consent

Not very often do we come across an issue which has the ability to ignite and sustain a public debate in the Jamaican society such as the issue of the age of sexual consent. In criminal law, the age of sexual consent is the age at which a person is considered to be capable of legally giving consent to sexual acts with another person. An individual who engages in sex with someone below the age of sexual consent commits a crime called carnal abuse. In Jamaica the age of sexual consent is sixteen (16) years old. In many other jurisdictions the age of sexual consent ranges from as young as twelve (12) years old to as old as twenty (21) years. Mexico is one of few countries with the age of sexual consent being at age 12. In the United States Of America the age of sexual consent ranges from a low of thirteen (13) years old (New Mexico) to a high of eighteen (18) years old (California).
Legal and Cultural Attitudes
Legal and cultural attitudes have over time influenced the age of sexual consent in many societies. In the mid-19th century it was very common to have the age of sexual consent ranging from a low of ten (10) years old to a high of thirteen (13) years old. By the end of the 20th century, cultural and legal attitudes and practices assisted in getting the age of consent increased, this was now ranging from fifteen to eighteen years old. In Jamaica the discourse has continued with many sharing the opinion that the age of sexual consent should be raised from 16 to 18 years old. There still exist today in the Jamaican society a few sexual myths which foster a culture of men having sex with young girls. Sadly and disturbingly some males still believe that certain sexual transmitted infections (STI’s) can be cured by having sexual intercourse with a virgin. It is also believed that the younger the girl is the more likely she will be a virgin. As a result some of our men folk will have sexual intercourse with underage girls in the belief that they will cure themselves. Of course all this does of course is to infect the girl with the sexually transmitted infection (STI's). Another issue in our culture which fosters some of our men having sex with underage girls is that of the sugar "daddy syndrome". This "sugar daddy syndrome" is one in which older men are sought out by young girls sometimes at the urging of the girl's mother, this is done because it is believed that these older men are in a better financial position than younger men to "look after" these young girls. Of course like any other transaction, it’s a two way process, the (older) man will expect some sort of sexual favour in return for spending his money on this girl.
The Jamaican Constitution stipulates that a citizen must reach the age of eighteen (18) years before he or she can vote. Eighteen is also the age at which one is allowed to work full time, these two very important milestones of achieving adulthood is in direct contrast and conflicts with the age of sexual consent which is currently at 16 years old. By increasing the age of sexual consent to 18 years we would be sending the correct message instead of this mixed message that is now being sent to our youngsters. On one hand we tell our young people that at age 16 they can give the consent to have sexual intercourse and on the other hand we tell them that they are not yet adults and we forbid them to participate in adult activities in our society such as the right to vote. By leaving the age of sexual consent at 16 years old we are in fact agreeing to our young people becoming parents. Pregnancy is one result of unprotected sex which is what happens in most instances of underage sexual intercourse.

Rights of the Child
 As we celebrate Youth Month and commemorate World Day for the prevention of Child Abuse let us be mindful of the increasing number of young girls in particular who are HIV positive.  Let us remember those of our children who are victims of child abuse and  human trafficking.
A significant number of who were infected before they were at the age of giving consent to sex. Universally children are protected by the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The Convention on the Rights of the Child aims to set minimum standards for the protection of children against discrimination, neglect and abuse they face daily. Jamaica is both a signatory to the Convention, as well as, the United Nations Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child.  
The Rights of the Child can be broadly grouped into three sections. These are; Provision Rights: the right to possess, receive or have access to a name, nationality, education, health care, rest and play and care for the disabled and orphans. Protection Rights: the right to shielded from harmful acts and practices, for example, protection from commercial and sexual exploitation and the final category is that of Participation; The Child’s right to be heard, for example, freedom of speech and opinion.
I am very much aware that a mere increase in the age of sexual consent will not solve all the problems associated with the exploitation, discrimination and abuse of our children. However, in addition to increasing the age of sexual consent we should ensure that the laws are enforced and that the perpetrators of crimes against our children are punished to the fullest extent of the law. Another issue of grave concern is that of our legal and justice system. It is often said that justice delayed is justice denied and very often due to the overcrowded justice system many victims get frustrated and abandoned their quest for justice. It is very clear that more funding is needed in order to protect those among us who are most vulnerable which in most cases are the very young and the very old, as well as our women folk. Our males also need to be re-socializing to some extent regarding sexual responsibility as well as to what it means to be a man. How can a grown man have sexual intercourse with a minor? How can a father have sex with his own daughter or step daughter? Research has revealed that some of the mothers also know what is happening to their daughter; however, sadly to say we still have those mothers who refuse from taking any action about the sexual abuse and exploitation of their daughters. Shame on those mothers! Sometimes these mothers fear losing the financial support from their spouse. However, is it better to lose our own daughter than to lose the financial support from your significant other?

Our boys are not to be overlooked. Boys too can and are indeed sexually abused and exploited. The care and protection of children should not be gender specific but gender neutral. The time has come for men to have an official “space” in the society. Why is it that a unit in the Ministry of Culture cannot be formed to address the issues boys and men face in the society? Gender rights are about the rights of both men and women. We can all contribute in making Jamaica a better place to live. Our state agencies which are there to oversee the welfare and protection of our children need to step up the pace to ensure that all our children are safe.

Wayne Campbell is an educator and social commentator with an interest in development policies as they affect culture and or gender issues.