NGOs want age of consent raised to 18
Kaieteur News

June 9, 2004

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REPRESENTATIVES of over 15 non-governmental organisations have agreed to propose to Government that the age of consent be raised to 18 years.

The agreement came about at a working meeting convened by the Guyana Human Rights Association (GHRA) which focused on amendments to the Criminal Offences Act on the age of consent.

A working group will be established to discuss the proposal and take the process forward.

But there was a debate on whether the momentum gathered recently over the issue should be used to focus on only the age of consent or also the wider issues covering sexual exploitation.

Attorney-at-law Josephine Whitehead told the forum that the Criminal Offences Act dealing with sexual offences is “Victorian” and “outdated.”

“You have a number of issues which desperately needs to be addressed. There is the new Sexual Offences legislation which has been in the Attorney General’s Chambers since 1991 and is somewhat out of date,” she said.

Whitehead said even though the age of consent is a current emotive issue, there is a need to examine the wider sexual offences issues.

Acting Director of Public Prosecutions, Roxanne George, acknowledged that the current legislation is problematic when it comes to dealing with sexual offences.

“Nothing in the system addresses the competency of children,” she said.

George said there is also a problem with children who have difficulty in articulating the sexual offences perpetrated against them.

The two-tiered system in Guyana where the cases go to the Magistrate’s Court then to the High Court is also of concern. George said on the majority of occasions the victim chooses to discontinue the proceedings because of the length of time a case may take.

According to her, the girl in question may subsequently marry and would not want her bad experience to be made known to the spouse or his family.

“All these issues are causing a tremendous backlog in the carnal knowledge cases,” she said.

Another sore point, George said, is that there are cases of sexual offences where instruments like sticks and bottles are used and these are cited merely as indecent assault according to the present system.

George said “…we need to strike while the iron is hot” to deal with the outmoded legislation.

Women’s advocate, Jocelyn Dow, said though there are many issues regarding sexual offences that have to be dealt with, there is an immediate need to put a “legal” brake on the epidemic of abuse of children in the country.

“We have to show that something is being done. While it is desirable to have the omnibus legislation, we need to say ‘enough is enough’,” Dow stated.

She said the sexual exploitation of children is continuing with the knowledge of the police, judges, lawyers, and families but nothing is being done.

Supporting Dow, Andaiye of Red Thread said: “We need to make a start then go forward.”

The GHRA-convened meeting also examined how to fast-track procedures to have Parliament accept the proposal and discussed pedophile issues which need to be addressed.

A strategy for committing the Children’s Bill to Parliament was also examined.

The GHRA named the influx of Brazilian miners and poverty as two factors which contribute to sexual exploitation of children in Guyana, a situation which it said is rising rapidly around the world.

Internet pornography in North America and the fear of contracting HIV/AIDS in the South are major factors which encourage the search for younger victims, the organisation said.

Vedushi Persaud, of the GHRA, said the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) defines a child as “every human being below the age of 18 years…”

She noted that the laws of Guyana presently have over a dozen different ages defining a child.

Only the Domestic Violence Act uses the CRC definition of 18 years.

Persaud said the advantages of raising the age of consent to 18 outweigh the disadvantages.

She noted that in a society like Guyana’s with a high rate of HIV infection, a higher age of consent may have desirable health outcomes by delaying sexual activity.

“The potential for sexual exploitation is a very serious issue in Guyana. There are many cases of female Amerindians being recruited for prostitution,” Persaud said.

She stated that society owes it to the children to be protected by having legal safeguards.

The laws must also take into account the sexual exploitation of employers against employees and teachers against students, she said.

Persaud said the issue under discussion is not to treat two teenagers engaging in consensual, but underage, sexual activity in the same way as the assault of a female child by an adult male.

“It is not the desire here to have persons younger than eighteen years dragged before the courts,” she said. “We do not want a situation that might criminalize teenagers who may experiment sexually outside the law.”

Dr. Rupert Roopnarine noted that President Bharrat Jagdeo has said he would be raising the age of consent but the Working People’s Alliance (WPA) executive pointed out this has to be done by Parliament.

He stated that there could be no fast-tracking of raising the age of consent because the Parliament operates with systems.

According to him, the earliest an amendment to the legislation could come into force would be around the end of the year, given that the recess of Parliament will take place in August.

“There are limits as to what could be done in the National Assembly. Fast-tracking is not what Parliament does,” he said.

Dr. Roopnarine explained that the amendment would have to be submitted by a Member of Parliament (MP).

If the amendment has government’s support, then that is the quickest way for it to be passed.

If the amendment is submitted by an opposition MP then it would have to be adopted by government.

But Dr. Roopnarine noted that given the commitment by President Jagdeo, it is unlikely that the government’s MPs would not adopt the motion by an opposition MP to raise the age of consent.

He stated that another approach could be the submission of a signed petition to Parliament.

This is a public, participatory approach but not a fast one, he said.

He recalled there was only one previous such move and that was when over 30,000 signatures were collected and sent to Parliament in 1983-84 when the WPA organised against banned food items.

The GHRA said the incidence of sexual violence and molestation occurring in Guyana is encouraged and enabled by a culture that demeans women and girl children.

It stated that the prosecution of adults who sexually exploit children is difficult.

Some of the obstacles listed by the GHRA are: families of victims not of high enough social standing; chauvinist religious cultures; social stigma attached to victims; abusers often close relatives/friends; under-resourced probation services; untrained prosecutors; lengthy hearings; intrusive cross-examinations of victims; fear of over-harsh penalties if the perpetrator is family; interference with witnesses; interference with evidence; ignorance about what constitutes evidence; lack of identity protection in the media; and little effective justice for hinterland victims.

The GHRA said the preference for financial settlement rather than prosecution in Guyana is less about money, than involving the victim and her family in more pain and shame in a process with an outside chance of success.

For longer-term action, the GHRA proposes the abolishment of preliminary inquiries in rape and sexual assault cases in favour of paper-based assessments, more trained police prosecutors and trained policewomen taking rape /sexual assault statements.

Attention must be paid to the trafficking of girl children in mining areas, the GHRA said.

It is also advocating the protection of children with disabilities from rape/sexual assault.

Other areas to be looked at by the GHRA are: protection of identity in media reporting of cases of rape/sexual assault/incest; soliciting of schoolgirls by businessmen and mini-bus operators and sexually aggressive television reporting.