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Will you jail a 19-year-old for kissing his 17-year-old girlfriend?

September 12, 2017

The government should include the ‘sweetheart defence clause’ in the Sexual Offences Against Children Act 2017 without further delay, and go for comprehensive sex education.


Teenage-LoveBy Dr John Teo

I must congratulate Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Azalina Othman Said and the government on the speedy gazettement and implementation of the Sexual Offences Against Children (SOAC) Act 2017.

This was one of the fastest implementations of any bill in Malaysian history, with Parliament passing it on April 4, 2017, and implementation on July 10.

It was also an extremely proud moment to see Azalina signing the gazettement of this bill and putting into effect Malaysia’s total commitment and resolve towards protecting our young and adolescents from sexual crimes. Without a doubt, this bill will have the support of all.

Children are our greatest assets and sexual crimes cannot be tolerated by any civilised society, and together we hope to eradicate this scourge from our nation.

However, I wish to point out how far and wide the net has been cast with the definition of physical sexual assault in section 14 and the need to make a police report by anyone in section 19, and its implications.

As the act stands in its current form, all physical contact that is sexual in nature, regardless of whether sexual intercourse has taken place, is an offence involving any one below 18 years old and everyone who has knowledge of such an offence, including health care professionals, needs to make a police report.

This creates a situation where any physical contact in a consensual relationship among our youths is an offence as long as one partner is below 18 years old. For example, a couple may be 17 and 19 years old respectively.

I am sure Azalina would agree that consensual relationships among youths are totally different from the sexual crimes and abuse that gave rise to the intentions of the bill.

The challenge now is that there is no safe haven for any young couple in a consensual relationship, as even when they see healthcare professionals, a police report will be made.

Comprehensive sex education, which includes pregnancy prevention methods teachings, versus abstinence-based sexuality education, will now be more challenging to deliver, and access to sexual and reproductive health services made more difficult in the current criminalisation of consensual relationships in young couples.

Comprehensive sex education among young people within the legal and policy frameworks has always been one policy, and there are strong international commitments regarding this. These include the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

The international agreements over the past decades such as the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in 1994, the Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995 and the World Summit on Children in 2002 have extended the scope of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), by affirming the right of all children and adolescents to receive sexual and reproductive health (SRH) information, education and services in accordance with their specific needs.

Many NGO’s had suggested that the ” sweetheart defence” clause be inserted in the SOAC 2017, whereby consensual sexual relationship between youths with small age gaps be spared from the SOAC 2017 – and which was never the intent of the Act.

Annually there are 13,000 to 17,000 teenage pregnancies and the 5th Malaysian Population and Family Survey in 2014 has shown that 2.3% of our 13 to 17-year-olds are already sexually active, with very poor sexual and reproductive health knowledge.

If I may quote Michel Sidibé, executive director of UNAIDS who said: “Preparing children and young people for the transition to adulthood has always been one of humanity’s great challenges, with human sexuality and relationship at its core.”

We need to provide our teenagers with comprehensive sex education, including knowledge about pregnancy prevention methods and access to contraceptives for those who are already sexually active.

The statutory rape law has an age limit of 16 years old in the wisdom that some teenagers above that age may be mature enough to be in a normal consensual relationship.

Please insert the sweetheart defence clause into the SOAC without further delay.

Education rather than criminalisation is the way forward towards decreasing unintended pregnancies, abortions and baby dumping among our young.

Do you really want to send a 19-year-old to jail for kissing or hugging his 17-year-old girlfriend?

Dr John Teo is a consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist based in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah.

The views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.


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