Rights groups settle on consent at 18
-ten years for paedophiles
Stabroek News
June 17, 2004

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Child rights activists are trying to mobilise more support to raise the age of consent to eighteen.

They are also grappling with the issue of how to allow sexual relationships between partners under that age or with an age difference of less than three years while not appearing to be promoting underage sex.

Activists and concerned citizens met again yesterday at a meeting sponsored by the Guyana Human Rights Association (GHRA), to plan ways to fast-track an amendment to the law, which they hope will protect children from paedophiles.

But the concerns over how proposed provisions for underage sex will be accepted still persisted at the meeting, which resolved to devise a strategy to educate the public about the issue.

The initiative to change the law was sparked by recent revelations about businessman Reeaz Khan's sexual relationship with a girl of 13, which is the legal age of consent under the provisions of the Criminal Law Offences Act.

The law now says that anyone who unlawfully and carnally knows any girl of or above the age of twelve and under the age of thirteen is guilty of a misdemeanour and liable to ten years imprisonment.

That is, unless, the accused can prove that he had reasonable cause to believe that the girl was of, or above age thirteen.

Yesterday, the participants reaffirmed their agreement to raise the age of consent to eighteen, while suggesting a penalty of imprisonment not exceeding ten years for offenders, rather than a term of life imprisonment.

Some participants felt a life term might be too harsh for offenders and offer little scope for their rehabilitation.

There was also some debate over whether there should be a provision for a minimum penalty, since, as one participant pointed out, there would still be judicial discretion that would allow a judge to give a one-month sentence.

The proposal also uses the term "child" instead of "girl" as in the current legislation, to protect boys from sexual assault.

The participants also ruminated over a provision for a defence to an indictment, which makes it conditional that the accused person reasonably believed and took steps to find out if the other person was eighteen or over. The proposal also makes consideration for cases where the accused was misled.

GHRA co-president Mike McCormack told the participants that an international organisation that looks at sexual exploitation issues was consulted about the proposal and recommended that there be a penalty, notwithstanding a defence.

But participants were not keen on this proposal, instead adopting the proposals for outlining defences.

Perhaps the most contentious of the proposals - to decriminalise sexual activity between consenting persons under age eighteen - was also re-examined at the meeting.

It was accepted that there would be no criminal liability in cases where there is consensual sex between persons who are within three years of each other. This was a special condition worked out for borderline cases, like consensual sex between a 19-year-old and a 17-year-old, which some of the participants felt might result in an unfair conviction.

In a note on the proposal the GHRA stated that the provision is not to be understood as encouraging underage sexual activity, but rather that criminal prosecution is not the way to deal with the problem.

"Consenting underage sexual activity, as with underage drinking, or smoking, is more suited to health and educational preventative strategies than criminal prosecution.

"It is important not to confuse protection of children - the intention of the amendment - with encouraging desirable sexual behaviour among adolescents, such as postponing sexual activity," the note said.

It was also suggested that interventions by the state, which may be required as a result of consenting underage sexual activity, for example pregnancy or paternity issues, should be of welfare rather than a criminal character. In this regard, they believe underage sex would be discouraged and addressed as a welfare issue when negative consequences occur, but not criminalised. These considerations met with favourable responses from participants, who will meet again next week to agree on the final proposals and to plan a public education strategy.

GAP/WPA Member of Parliament (MP) Sheila Holder has agreed to pilot the amendment through the National Assembly, although it has been said by knowledgeable individuals that its enactment will most likely not occur until the end of the year.

Although not unappreciative of Holder's gesture, it was noted that getting a Government MP to pilot the amendment would be best, since it is said to be the fastest way to get it enacted.

Merle Mendonca of the GHRA also told participants that mobilising wider support, especially from the religious community, remains key to getting wider acceptance for the amendment. She said there has been support from NGOs, youth and women's groups but while church groups have so far responded favourably to the proposals, they have yet to officially endorse them.

McCormack meanwhile alluded to this being as result of the proviso to protect consenting children, which he felt would be mistaken as advocacy for underage sex.

In this regard, he was in favour of a public education campaign to clearly set out the purpose of the amendment, and to guard against a possible backlash when it is taken before the National Assembly.