A call for a debate on lowering the age of sexual consent has divided opinions and excited emotions in Kenya. Three appellate judges have called for the national discussion arguing that there was a need for Kenyans to amend the country’s Sexual Offences Act because some sections can lead to injustice contrary to the noble intentions of the constitution.
“Our prisons are teeming with young men serving lengthy sentences for having had sexual intercourse with adolescent girls whose consent has been held to be immaterial because they were under 18 years.
“The wisdom and justice of this unfolding tragedy call for serious interrogation,” Court of Appeal judges Roselyn Nambuye, Daniel Musinga, and Patrick Kiage argue.
The call is being opposed by parents and members of the clergy who believes girls must be protected at least until they are no longer teenagers.
Ms. Wambui Waweru, a mother of four, says the age of consent should be changed from 18 to 21, not lowered. “Lowering it takes us many years back when girls were married off immediately they experienced their first menstruation.
“In essence, we will be telling men that it is okay to take our girls out of school and marry them. It is sad that we’re even having this conversation,” she says, adding, “at 16, one is not responsible enough to make a decision such as having sex, which carries with it implications that a person this age is not equipped to bear,” she says.
Health experts say that educating the young on sex is better than merely lowering the consent age because it empowers them to make informed decisions.
“If they are not well equipped with information on how to practice safe sex and how to take care of themselves, why are we introducing them to sex? Lowering the age means they can go and start practicing what they totally know nothing about,” says Dr. Aggrey Akula, a gynecologist.
The Church is vehemently opposed to the idea, with Anglican Church Archbishop Jackson ole Sapit, saying, the proposal is a ploy to allow men to have sex with underage girls.
The Catholic Archbishop of Kisumu Philip Anyolo says: “Our underage boys and girls should not be exposed to, or given the freedom to have sex. If they cannot get married at 16, lowering the age of consent is akin to allowing them to have sex outside the union of marriage. I encourage young people to focus on themselves especially during their early 20s.” Teachers, like health experts, want teens to be guided on matters sex instead of lowering the age of consent.
Kenya Union of Post Primary Education Teachers (Kuppet) Secretary General Akelo Misori says: “This debate needs to be guided by morals and therefore it will be unfair to decide for young people what and when to do it.”
Nairobi woman representative Esther Passaris sides with the judges. She says that the teenage pregnancy plague and cases of jailing young men over sex offenses will decline should the age for legal sex be lowered.
“Our children are already having sex. Lowering the age would make it possible to establish and implement the comprehensive sex education curriculum that will enable young people to understand sex. It would also make contraceptives available for young girls and help them avoid unplanned pregnancies,” Ms. Passaris said.
She faulted the country’s conservative approach to sex education, citing European countries that have lower ages of consent and low instances of teenage pregnancies.
But some NGOs will hear none of that.
Ms. Wang Le, the Country Director for Save the Children, says the proposal is ill-advised, adding that her organization was coming up with a document explaining why Kenya is not ready for such a move.
Community Advocacy and Awareness Trust executive director Daisy Amdany also opposes the idea. “Lowering the age of sexual consent does not make the problem go away. We need to sit down and come up with a solution that would address the problem,” she says.
Introducing sex education would go a long way in helping young people understand themselves and their bodies, she says.