The age of consent
June 4, 2004
Under the current laws of Guyana Mr Reeaz Khan is not guilty of statutory rape. In some other Western countries he would be. In fact, in some other Western countries he would be branded a paedophile and would find himself the object of public revulsion. It says something for the people of Guyana that for the most part they are way ahead of the legislation which supplies the framework for their social behaviour. Muslims, Hindus and Christians alike, as well as civil organizations with no religious affiliations of any kind, have expressed outrage that Mr Khan could have a sexual relationship with a thirteen-year-old schoolgirl.
It makes no difference that the child is in love with Mr Khan, let alone that he is in love with her; it makes no difference that she freely consented to intimacy with him and wants to stay with him; it makes no difference that he has applied to the court to marry her; it makes no difference whether any of his allegations against the girl's mother have merit or whether none of them do - the only thing that matters is that he is a grown man and she is a child.
Our legislation is the inheritance of different times and different mores. Perhaps it served a useful purpose in its day, and then again perhaps it didn't, but that is neither here nor there now. In our more infinitely complex and difficult times, an age of consent of thirteen years on the statute books is nothing short of a scandal. A girl may be physically mature at the age of thirteen, but she is certainly not emotionally or mentally mature. The maturation process takes its time, and she may have any number of crushes in her teenage years before becoming an adult in all senses of the word, when she will be able to make the kind of informed choices which would have the best chances of not stymieing her future.
And you can be sure if she stays with Mr Khan, as his wife or otherwise, she will be stymieing her future. The odds are that even if it transpires he chooses to stay with her, the woman who evolves from the child will want out of the relationship at some point. If the situation becomes intolerable and she wants to leave, she will find herself facing a world on her own without any skills with which she could support herself - worse yet if she had a child or children dependent on her. The world for women on their own with no education can be an unforgiving place.
All of this is quite apart from the theft of childhood which such relationships entail. Furthermore if the girl has children of her own, it will not just put her physical health at risk, but will put a strain on her emotionally as well. How can a child herself, who lacks judgement, maturity and the kind of knowledge which age carries with it, bring up children of her own in a responsible way?
And then there is the psychological inequality of the relationship between herself and Mr Khan - and how could it be otherwise given the fact that she is yet a minor in years and development, and he is a grown man of considerable experience. Inherent in such inequality, is exploitation. A thirteen-year-old who is in love, may think she can make a commitment, but in fact she lacks the qualifications to do so. She is not old enough to understand the possible implications of her choice, and as such, therefore, she is not making a meaningful decision in any sense of that term. Mr Khan, on the other hand, is more than old enough to understand the implications of any choices he makes, and is also old enough to recognize that she cannot do the same. His persistence in relation to this child, therefore, does not suggest that his love has transcended the boundaries of his own self-interest, to place her welfare above all else.
Mr Khan can say what he likes about Ms Hamid, the mother of the girl at the centre of the storm, but her statements that she wants her daughter to complete school and to get an education cannot be faulted. In the new globalised world we live in, the best a parent can do to give a child - boy or girl - options for survival as an adult, is to encourage him or her to go as far as they can with their schooling. Who will ever know what potential the thirteen-year-old has if she is never given the opportunity to find out? And who is Mr Khan, a man who has made it in life financially speaking, to deny a child an education and the options which are attendant on that just because he has fallen in love with her?
For the Guyanese people, fortunately, as well as for all women's groups across the board, no argumentation is necessary in favour of a change in the law. They know instinctively that while Mr Khan's actions in being intimately involved with a child are legally acceptable, they are still not morally right. If the Government is serious, therefore, about protecting children, about gender equality and about implementing the provisions of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, then it should awaken from its trance and ask Minister Bibi Shadick to announce its intention of amending the law as it relates to sexual consent.