Speaking for their peers, three teenagers today asked members of Parliament to talk to young people about the challenges of having sex at a young age and to consider the introduction of a separate register for child sex offenders, instead of criminalising what to them was a natural part of growing up.
The teenagers – invited to address Parliament’s portfolio committee on justice – pleaded for more education and less criminal punishment for experimenting sexually with children their own age. It was the last scheduled day of public participations to discuss the amendments to the 2007 Criminal Law (Sexual Offences and Related Matters) Act. The amendments are a bid to bring the Act in line with two Constitutional Court judgments that call for Parliament to make sure children aged between 12 and 16 are not criminalised for engaging in consensual sex if the age gap is two years or less.
While acknowledging that engaging in sex at a young age could lead to consequences for which they might not be ready, these Cape Town teenagers from non-governmental organisation Molo Songololo, aged 14 to 17, asked the committee to consider the implications of making criminals out of children who were simply experimenting sexually.
The committee meeting was filled with activists and several children in school uniform, waiting patiently for a chance to make their submissions to Parliament. A 17-year-old girl said that as a teenager she would not promote having sex at an early age, but added that the reality is that this was happening.
“Sex is part of everyone’s development process. Yes, it is not right to have sex at an early age, but most of us do not get parental guidance from home. Many parents rarely talk about sex because they feel uncomfortable and most of us learn about it from TV, school, internet and sometimes we get the wrong advice from the wrong people. We do not get the right information, but we start to experiment,” the girl said. “Sex is not a crime but a part of nature and growing up. The law cannot make nature a crime. It is natural to develop those feelings and teenagers should not be criminalised for this.”
The portfolio committee, chaired by ANC MP Pilane Majake, said the children were not making presentations from personal experiences but from their perspectives as teenagers.
A nervous-looking 14-year-old girl said she understood that sex was a big responsibility and that underage children should not engage in sexual acts at all, particularly when they don’t have enough information about sex. “Our parents mostly tell us not to have sex before the age of 18, or older, because we do not understand the responsibilities. But we know that teenagers do develop sexual relationships between 12 and 15 years of age with each other.
“We don’t think teenagers will stop having sex just because it’s against the law, and some might even find it interesting to break the law. Some don’t even know that it is currently illegal because they are not taught these things.”
A 17-year-old boy, arguing against the inclusion of the names of child offenders in the sexual offences register, suggested that a separate register be created for children. “We as children are not happy that the register treats child offenders and adults the same. It is not fair for children who have been put on the register [for consensual sex] to be treated the same as adults who have committed serious sexual crimes,” the boy said.
“We think there must be a separate register, governed by strict guidelines and rules to determine if the child’s name should go on the register. There must be an opportunity for a child sex offender to make a presentation for their names not to be put on the register. And there must be an annual review to check if the child’s name must be removed from the register.”
Committee chairperson Majake and African Christian Democratic Party MP Steven Swart, who had been vocal throughout the four days of public participations, listened attentively to the presentations before gently thanking the teenagers for bravely addressing the committee, and for stressing the need for teenagers to wait before indulging in sexual intercourse.
The MPs directed gruelling questions at the different groups of adults who had been making submissions to the committee since last week, but the children were allowed to make their submissions without questions.
Majake said the teenagers made it easier for her to listen to their views by first stressing the need to wait before engaging in sex.
The committee will sit for deliberations next week.