Age of consent meeting
Harsher penalty for paedophiles endorsed
Stabroek News
June 24, 2004

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Proposals for raising the age of consent now include a harsher penalty for paedophiles and a special proviso to protect children from being exploited for money.

These were among suggestions taken on board yesterday when local rights activists and concerned citizens met again at the Guyana Human Rights Centre to discuss a draft amendment to the law which now allows 13-year-old girls to consent to sex.

Local activists have been working on an amendment to raise the age of consent to 18 as a result of recent reports of a sexual relationship between a businessman and a 13-year-old girl.

Red Thread Women's Development Group, which was represented at the meeting by Karen de Souza, did not support the amendment to age 18, opting instead for 16, on the basis of it being more realistic.

As the law stands now, anyone who unlawfully and carnally knows any girl of or above age 12 and under 13 is guilty of a misdemeanour and liable to ten years in jail; unless, he can prove that he had reasonable cause to believe that the girl was of or above 13.

It was agreed yesterday that the proposed amendment would use the term "sexual connection" from the Caricom model rather than carnal knowledge to capture a range of sexual activities.

But while sexual connection under the Caricom model is said to have a general meaning akin to carnal knowledge, some of the participants were keen on a more detailed definition of activities or behaviours which will be covered in the law.

Last week, the participants agreed that the penalty set out is too severe and offered offenders little hope for rehabilitation.

At their third meeting yesterday, they adopted a new proposal for a five-year minimum and 15-year maximum penalty for offenders.

They also agreed on a proviso that would allow the court, in the light of mitigating circumstances, to impose a sentence less than the minimum.

There were arguments in favour of retaining the life imprisonment

clause, but it was again pointed out that in most cases 'life' basically amounts to a ten-year jail term.

Potential borderline cases, like sex between a 21-year-old and a 17-year-old were also considered.

At the meeting last week, there was support for a proposed defence to an indictment. The proposed defence makes it conditional that the accused person reasonably believed and took steps to find out if the other person was of or over 18. It also makes consideration for if the accused was misled.

Although there were some who were not in favour of allowing for a defence, the meeting eventually agreed on the proposal as well as special provisos for more stringent conditions. Included now, is the condition that the accused can only use the defence once, as currently obtains in Jamaica. Also, that in cases where there was a commercial transaction, that is, if there was payment for sex, the defence would not apply. Therefore, there would be no defence even if the sex was consensual.

At the start of the meeting, there was debate on if age 18 was most appropriate for the amendment, with de Souza saying 16 is the more realistic.

It was noted that while 18 is the age of majority, there are still legal provisions that cater for compulsory education until 15, and that the minimum age for marriage is 14. Also, at 16, a person can legally leave the home of his/her parents or guardian.

But GHRA Co-President Mike McCormack was not convinced by what he described as the reality argument, saying the proposal is intended to govern the sexual interaction between children and adults.

Though he admitted that it was not scientific, he also explained that the GHRA has canvassed several groups on the proposed age, including young people, who are in support of 18.

GAP/WPA Member of Parliament (MP) Sheila Holder who was present told the meeting that it is important to educate both the public and MPs on the merit of the proposals if they are to get support.

She said of particular importance is getting the support of the religious community, which has so far been silent on the issue.

At the last meeting, it was noted that while church groups have so far responded favourably to the proposals, they have yet to endorse them. McCormack said there are plans for a public campaign, which would begin when the final draft is worked out in a few days.