22Jan 2017
Anne Kiruku
Guardian On Sunday
Ea Wowen in Perspective

Arusha, 21 January 2017 (EANA) – A move by the Kenyan government to amend the Sexual Offences Act to reduce the age of consensual sex from 18 to 16 years is not just shameful, but totally misplaced.

The amendment to the Act, which is hidden in the Statute Law (Miscellaneous Amendment Bill) 2016, proposes to allow teenagers aged 16 years to have consensual sex. Currently, it is a crime to have sexual relations with someone under the age of 18 – and a person who commits the offence faces a jail term of not less than 15 years.

It is disgraceful that our lawmakers can sit in parliament to discuss such amendments while ignoring other more pressing issues affecting the citizenry. It is an even bigger shame for lawmakers to ignore the repercussions of early pregnancies in their push for a lowering of the age limit for consensual sex.

Although the Bill – which has already been tabled for the first reading and is now under the Departmental Committee on Justice and Legal Affairs for consideration – is meant to protect the boy child, lowering the age of consensual sex is nothing but selfish.

It is a fact that some boys are now in jail serving terms of 20 years and above for sexual offences involving their peers; their lives have been ruined. It is therefore prudent to find a workable solution that will not punish the boy child but will equally protect girls, who have for long suffered sexual abuse.

It is appropriate to consider the age gap between an offender and the victim so as to prevent lifetime condemnation of young teenage offenders as a result of profiling their names on the permanent sexual offenders’ register.

Children at the age of 16 are still in the early stages of their secondary school education. They do not hold national identification cards and therefore cannot vote, leave alone make key decisions about themselves.

Although some human-rights organisations have defended the amendments to the Bill claiming that it seeks to protect teenage boys, the move could lead to a rising number of teenage pregnancies and early marriages – both of which have more adverse effects on girls than on boys.

The global average consensual sex age limit is 16 years, which puts Kenya’s minimum sex age limit of 18 years among the old maids of the world, but this alone is an insufficient consideration to justify lowering the age limit. One must take into account local challenges, which include teenage pregnancies and early marriages. In Angola and Mexico, the age of consent is 12, while in Burkina Faso and Korea, it is 13; in Canada, the consensual age limit is 14, while in Sweden it is 15 years.

The United Nations seems comfortable with a minimum age consent of between 14 and 16 years, with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) expressing the opinion that adolescent behaviour should not be over-criminalised.

This truth is that a balance between leniency and responsible behaviour should be sought, especially in the face of increasing rates of HIV/Aids infections among teenagers, early marriages, girl-child school drop-outs and teenage pregnancies.

Currently, adolescents between the ages of 10 and 19 years represent about nine per cent of persons living with HIV and 13 per cent of all HIV-related deaths in Kenya. Amending the Sexual Offences Act to lower the consensual age limit cannot possibly be one of the ways of dealing with this catastrophe.

Moreover, girls below the age of 19 account for 17 per cent of all women seeking post-abortion care services and about 45 per cent of all severe abortion-related admissions in local hospitals. These statistics are worrying and could become worse if the situation is not tamed.

Across the East African Community, the education sector has seen worrying rates of girl-child school drop-outs due to early pregnancies. At primary school level, enrolment for boys and girls is almost the same, but at secondary school level the enrolment for girls lags far behind that of boys, with less than 20 per cent of girls graduating from secondary school compared with 32 per cent of boys.

Our lawmakers should legislate prudently, passing laws that arrest rather than exacerbate the challenges facing the girl child. Sex education should also be heightened to ensure our children are well informed.

Protecting our children from sex predators requires MPs to pass laws that acknowledge the situation on the ground; anything short of that should not be tolerated.