Damion Crawford's proposal for the age of consent to be raised from 16 to 18 years has won support from local child advocacy group Hear The Children's Cry, whose convenor, Betty Ann Blaine, says she has been calling for this adjustment for a long time.
At the same time, United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) Jamaica appeared non-committal on the Opposition senator's recommendation, arguing that "the legal minimum age for sexual consent should take in the evolving capacities of adolescents and balance this with their protection".
Additionally, UNICEF suggested that close-in-age exceptions be made when it comes to sexual activity between two adolescents, pointing out that the concept was discussed four years ago by a parliamentary committee.
Close-in-age exception, also called the Romeo and Juliet law, allows consensual sex between people older and younger than 18. While there are a number of variations in age limits allowed under the law in different jurisdictions it recognises consensual sex between a minor aged 13 to 17 and someone no more than four years older than them. For example, a 16-year-old and 19-year-old would be covered by the Romeo and Juliet exception.
Under Jamaica's Child Care and Protection Act, a child is anyone under 18 years old.
Last Friday in the Senate, Crawford, the Opposition spokesman on education, made the suggestion of a higher age of consent given the prevalence of teenage pregnancies in Jamaica, with almost 60,000 girls giving birth over a 10-year period.
On Monday, Blaine, in voicing support for Crawford's recommendation, urged other child advocacy groups and the church, which she said "is a big influence on children and a big player, as far as children are concerned, in Jamaica", to support the call.
"As far as I am concerned, 18 seems like the proper age. That's when in countries, including ours, you can get a licence to drive. There are certain things that are afforded children when they get to age 18 and that's because the teenage brain does not operate perhaps as clearly and as lucidly until our children get to a certain age," she told the Jamaica Observer.
Blaine argued that the age of consent needs to be in line with the age of a child.
"It's like a misfit; it's too ambivalent, it's too confusing to have the age of consent at 16 and the age of the child at 18," she said, noting that it has been very difficult for law enforcers to contend with the two ages as they address abuses against children.
In the meantime, UNICEF Jamaica, in a statement issued on Monday, said that the issues raised in Parliament point to two serious challenges facing Jamaican girls â€” the coercion or luring of many girls, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, into early sexual activity by older adults who provide money, goods or favours in exchange for sex; and the inability of many girls to continue their education because of early pregnancy.
Pointing out that most Caribbean countries have set the minimum age of consent at 16, UNICEF Jamaica said the objective of the minimum age of sexual consent is to protect adolescents from sexual abuse and from the consequences of early sexual activity on their rights and development, including their right to an education.
The agency also said that a joint select committee of Parliament had deliberated the issue in 2018 and agreed that close-in-age exceptions should be considered under the law.
Additionally, UNICEF put forward several considerations which, it said, are critical in protecting girls from sexual abuse and exploitation and in ensuring their right to an education.
These include ensuring every child in Jamaica is protected from sexual abuse and exploitation through enactment and enforcement of robust legislation like the Child Care and Protection Act; building strong child protection agencies and fostering responsive and caring families, communities, and social institutions; providing every Jamaican child with access to relevant knowledge and life skills programmes which help in safe and healthy decision-making; and ensuring every girl who becomes pregnant can continue and complete her secondary level education through strengthening and expanding the work of programmes such as the Women's Centre of Jamaica Foundation, which has been an effective and long-standing partner of UNICEF Jamaica.
Crawford himself had suggested a raft of recommendations on Friday which he believes will help to stem teenage pregnancies and ensure greater protection of young girls, including 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.
"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 also suggested the establishment of a permanent paedophile registry, and proposed that the Centre for the Investigation of Sexual Offences and Child Abuse be equipped with enough investigators to look into all underage pregnancies, armed with the right to take DNA samples from suspects.
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.
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".