JOHANNESBURG: In June, Parliament decriminalised consensual sexual activity between children aged 12 to 15 years, much to the relief of activists who have been fighting the constitutionality of the 2007 Sexual Offences Act.
Activists believed that instead of protecting children, the act placed them – especially girls – in danger.
The latest change sets the consent age for sex among children at 16. It furthermore decriminalises consensual sex between 12 to 15-year-olds.
During a seminar on the changes, Wits researcher Lisa Vetten said some of the problems with the act became apparent in 2010 after a video of an alleged gang rape of a 15-year-old Jules High School pupil.
Vetten said after the video emerged, the girl laid rape charges against the two boys who were involved.
“After viewing the footage, the National Prosecuting Authority believed the sex was consensual. In the past you would only have charged the boy but in terms of the new provision of the 2007 Sexual Offences Act because it was consensual, you then charge both.
“This girl went from having laid charges of rape to becoming an accused herself. It set alarm bells ringing for people because it said in the future teenage girls who lay charges of rape, and where the circumstances were not clear, would themselves, be charged. This was not a risk that adult women faced,” Vetten said.
The Jules High School pupils were sent to a diversion programme, but the girl was never able to lead a normal life.
“She went to two other schools and eventually had to change because people found out who she was. In 2014, she committed suicide. This was one of the first examples of the damaging effects of the law.”
Another worrying case happened in a high school in Giyani, Limpopo, where 27 girls had fallen pregnant.
“Five boys and two girls were charged in terms of the Sexual Offences Act. The charges were eventually withdrawn but it started showing us how the law that was there to protect and deal with sexual violence was used in an incredibly punitive way to police and regulate children’s sexual activity,” Vetten said.
She said researchers working in the Western Cape found that police officers also started visiting clinics asking to look at the ante-natal registers to see if minors were pregnant. She said this led organisations to question the act and what she described as the “demonisation of teenage girls”.
“The consequences were most severe for girls. The other difficulty is that teenage girls are not believed when they lay rape claims,” Vetten said.
The interesting question was why girls were becoming scapegoats. “What is it about the current climate that makes them the target of our fears and anxiety?”
Nolwazi Mkwanazi, an anthropologist at Wits, said instead of policing young people’s sexuality, teaching them about reproductive health and an access to contraception would be better interventions.
She said legislation like the choice of termination of pregnancy act, which allows women to have free abortions, and the SA Schools Act, which has made it illegal to expel a young mother from school, have tried to deal with the challenges but there was still a long way to go.
“Schools remain hostile to pregnant learners and learner mothers. We are told that just over half of the terminations by young people between 13 and 19 are performed illegally,” Mkwanazi said.
She said the rates of teenage pregnancy had decreased over the last 20 years but the figures were still high.
“In a study on teenage pregnancy, it was found that three quarters of respondents between 18 and 24 became pregnant because of a lack of reproductive knowledge. They also found that just over half did not understand the risk of having sex,” Mkwanazi said.
She said sexual education was part of the school curriculum in Life Orientation classes but little research has been done on how this is done.
“Teachers are often intent on discouraging learners from sexual activity and so they tend to advocate abstinence. We find similar ideas in young people’s encounters with nurses,” Mkwanazi said.
Zane Dangor, special adviser to social development minister Bathabile Dlamini, said they were trying to bridge the gap through the National Adolescent Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights Framework Strategy.
Dangor said an important issue that society does not talk about when discussing teenage sex is that some of them have sex because it is pleasurable.
“It is an issue that causes significant angst.
“We confront the issue of why adolescents have sex. Teenagers have sex because they like it and that is something we need to engage with. Those who have sex for pleasure were more likely to have protected use, were more likely to use condoms. Those who fall accidentally into sex because of lack of information were more likely to have unprotected sex and more likely to fall pregnant within a year.”
Dangor said that is why it was important to have a strategy dedicated to adolescent sexual behaviours.
He said one of the key strategies was a major revision in sexual education.