The law on sexual consent Editorial
Stabroek News
June 11, 2004

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In our edition yesterday we reported child-rights activists who attended a meeting organized by the Guyana Human Rights Association (GHRA) as proposing that the age of sexual consent should be raised from thirteen to eighteen. We went on to report the GHRA as saying that the sexual exploitation of children was rapidly rising, and that younger victims were being sought out. One of the reasons for this, one supposes, is the HIV/AIDS epidemic, where some adults seek out very young partners because they know the victims will have no previous sexual history, and will consequently present no risk of infection. The GHRA also alluded to the influx of Brazilian miners in some interior areas, as well as poverty as factors influencing the present high incidence of child exploitation.

The age of eighteen, of course, is the one cited in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child to which Guyana is a signatory, but whether it is a realistic age to write into our legislation at this stage - at least in an absolute sense where sexual activity involving two minors is concerned - is perhaps a moot point. Certainly the meeting did make a distinction between teenagers below the age of eighteen engaging in sex, and adults preying on children. GHRA Executive Secretary Vidushi Persaud was quoted as saying: "It is not our desire to have young persons just below the age of 18 dragged before the courts. Our position is not a pious, moralistic one. What we wish to avoid is the abuse by older persons of our young people."

Certainly a distinction can be made in the law between teenagers involved in sexual experimentation, and paedophiles who groom and/or prey on young people. This distinction, in fact, is made in the legislation of other countries, including England. Furthermore, because of the increasing number of cases involving the 'grooming' of teenagers by paedophiles using the internet, this too is now a specific offence in UK legal jurisdictions. If the child-rights activists are thinking primarily at this stage of protecting young people from sexual exploitation by adults, they perhaps should include the subject of internet 'grooming' in their deliberations.

In making a distinction between molestation of children by adults, and experimentation by young teens, the GHRA Executive Secretary expressed the view that there ought to be some relaxation of the penalties for under-age offenders, whose ages, she suggested, should be no more than within two years of each other. The issue of age is not a simple one, and of necessity will involve a measure of arbitrariness. But if the age of consent is eighteen, what about a relationship between, say, a seventeen-year-old girl and a twenty-year-old man - should the latter then be subject to the heavier penalty really intended to deter paedophiles? One has to keep in mind the fact too that teenage girls are mentally more mature than boys of the same chronological age, and quite often, therefore, will seek their romantic partners among males a bit older than themselves and at a similar stage of maturational development.

There was a minority view at the meeting which advocated sixteen, rather than eighteen as the age of consent, and at this stage of our development this view should not be dismissed out of hand. The reason is quite simply, that a substantial number of our children do not attend secondary school, not because they choose not to, but because they can't do so even if they wanted to; there are simply not enough secondary school places available for them. It is true that the Ministry of Education is working to ensure that all pupils have access to a secondary education, but achieving that goal will inevitably take time.

Recent amendments to the constitution have inscribed 15 as the age up to which education is compulsory, although it must be said that in some hinterland areas particularly, children may be leaving before this, because schooling beyond Form 3 is not available. As such, therefore, it would make little sense to have a blanket age of eighteen for the purposes of sexual consent, where there are no educational opportunities, and teenagers are expected to support themselves economically at some level.

In short, the issue of the age of consent is not a simple one in a context where there are such variations in the range of opportunities available from one part of the country to the next, and where cultural norms also vary from one community to the next. What everyone is agreed upon is that thirteen is too low for the minimum age anywhere in Guyana, and that young people should be protected from adult sexual predators everywhere in Guyana. Beyond that, some compromises may be necessary for the time being in terms of the ideal. Whether that means accepting an age below eighteen until educational opportunities are more evenly distributed across this land, or whether it means looking at a two-tier age of consent (one for adult predators, and one for teenagers involved in sexual experimentation - always assuming of course, that that is practicable which it might not be), is something which would have to be discussed.