OPPOSITION spokesman on education Senator Damion Crawford is calling for an increase in the age of consent from 16 to 18 years, given the prevalence of teenage pregnancies in Jamaica, with 60,000 girls giving birth over a 10-year period.
Crawford, who was making his contribution to the State of Nation Debate in the Senate on Friday, cited statistics from a World Bank study, based on the Jamaica Survey of Living Conditions, which revealed that 49 per cent of girls are not in high school because they are pregnant.
“I would like to recommend at this time, knowing that we intend for a seven-year secondary school experience, that it is sensible to review the age of consent from 16 to 18 because if we want them to be in school, then sex creates a risk of 49 per cent already,” said the Opposition senator.
Crawford said that, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the objective of a minimum age of sexual consent is to protect adolescents from sexual abuse, and from the consequences of early sexual activity on their rights and their development.
He said the agency posits that some of the greatest consequences of early sexual activity are that the girls will become pregnant and lose their future, and that young adolescents may be lured into sexual activity by older adults.
“Based on our Jamaican circumstances, in exchange for goods [or] food [young girls are drawn into relations with these men]. You know how many of these nasty men out there [who use] fast food to lure our little young girls suffering from the economic circumstances and poverty that they are in?” Crawford said.
Girls from “disadvantaged settings and poor backgrounds”, he argued, are particularly at risk, recalling that some girls have told him that they get $300 daily from the men they are involved with who are essentially taking advantage of them.
Crawford pointed out that some of the teens’ mothers encourage the relationships for economic gain. “They were basically sex workers for their family. We have to do something; it’s a state of emergency,” he stressed.
Further, to ensure the protection of young girls, Crawford put forward several recommendations which he believes will help to stem teenage pregnancies, including calling a minimum sentence of 15 years in prison for statutory rape. This speaks to an adult who has sex with someone under the age of consent.
He also suggested the establishment of a permanent paedophile registry, so “dem [paedophiles] cyaan a move from community to community”.
Crawford further proposed that the Centre for the Investigation of Sexual Offences and Child Abuse be equipped with enough investigators to look into all under-age pregnancies, armed with the right to take DNA samples from suspects. That procedure, he said, is currently allowed “but not being done because if you have 60,000 in the last 10 years, at least 50,000 should be in jail. That’s how you bring down some of these criminals”.
“So as not to criminalise adolescents, the law should consider a three-year exemption [for them]. We are not trying to criminalise a 19-year-old with a 17-year-old, but the 35- and 28- and 40-year-olds taking advantage of some [girls who are] 11- and 12-year-olds [is unacceptable],” he said.
He further proposed that sexual education and family planning should be entrenched in the secondary school curriculum so that teens can have a different perception of sexual activity.
“You don’t hear these voice notes with our little girls accepting that their sexual ability is their only ability; voice notes in this country with 15-year-olds saying she know how to keep a man with her sexual performance,” he said.
Crawford also urged that “with immediate effect” the National Family Planning Board budget be increased, lamenting that in the 2020/21 budget, the allocation for a programme to reduce teenage pregnancy was a mere $9 million.
He said that in 2022 it was reduced to $7.8 million “when the statistics were showing that this is a crisis; this is indeed code red”.