South Africa has one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in the world. Alarming numbers from Statistics South Africa (Stats SA) show that 90.037 girls aged ten to 19 years gave birth from March 2021 to April 2022 in all nine provinces. The report also indicates that of the almost 34.000 teenage pregnancies during 2020, 660 of those were girls under the age of 13 years. One of the root causes for those stark statistics is a crime called statutory rape.
However, many people – including victims of statutory rape – have never heard of the term or don’t understand it fully. This lack of knowledge contributes to the high number of (unreported) cases.
So, What Is Statutory Rape?
Statutory rape refers to a legal term that defines sexual activity between two individuals, of which one is below the age of consent, which varies by jurisdiction but is generally set around 16 to 18 years old. In South Africa the legal age of consent is 16.
Unlike other forms of rape, statutory rape focuses on the age difference between the participants rather than the presence of coercion or lack of consent. The core premise is that individuals under the age of consent are considered legally incapable of providing informed consent to engage in sexual activity with an older partner, even if they might agree to it. This legal concept was created to protect minors from potential exploitation or manipulation by adults in positions of authority or trust.
Penalties for statutory rape can range from criminal charges and imprisonment to registration as a sex offender, depending on the jurisdiction and the specific circumstances of the case. The application of statutory rape laws can be complex, as they often involve factors such as age differences, consent, and the existence of close-in-age exemptions, which may vary from one jurisdiction to another.
What Does That Mean?
According to the Criminal Law Amendmend Act 32 of 2007 sexual contact with a minor that is older than twelve years but under the age of 16 is considered statutory rape. If both partners are older than twelve but younger than 16 years, it is not considered statutory rape as long as the age gap between the partners is two years or less. For example, a 13-year-old and a 15-year-old can legally have sex if it is agreed to by both partners and not forced in any way. However, if anyone older than 16 years has sexual contact with a minor (younger than 16 years) and the age gap is bigger than two years, they are committing statutory rape.
Very important: Sexual intercourse with a child under the age of 12 is always considered rape, even if the partner is a minor.
What Causes Statutory Rape in South Africa?
Statutory rape can be the result of gender based violence, lack of knowledge and cultural norms. In most cases, it’s a combination of many different factors that we need to address in order to protect victims.
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1. Lack of Comprehensive Sex Education
Limited or inadequate sex education can result in a lack of understanding about consent, legal age limits, and the consequences of engaging in sexual activities with minors. This can lead to individuals unknowingly or willfully engaging in illegal acts.
2. Socioeconomic Disparities
Socioeconomic inequalities can lead to vulnerable situations where older individuals might exploit younger ones. Economic hardship can make young people more susceptible to manipulation, coercion, and even transactional relationships.
3. Cultural Norms and Gender Dynamics
We live in a patriarchal society in which the rights of womxn and girls are often disregarded. Some cultural norms and traditional practices might perpetuate unequal power dynamics between genders. These imbalances can result in young girls being disproportionately affected by statutory rape, with older men taking advantage of their vulnerability.
4. Peer Pressure and Influence
Adolescents often face pressure from peers to engage in sexual activities. In some cases, older individuals might take advantage of the naivety or desire for acceptance that young people might feel.
5. Lack of Reporting and Prosecution
Fear of stigma, retaliation, or lack of trust in the legal system can discourage victims from reporting statutory rape cases. Similarly, inadequate law enforcement and prosecution of offenders can perpetuate a culture of impunity, encouraging further instances of statutory rape.
6. Early Marriages and Arranged Marriages
In certain cultural contexts, early and arranged marriages might contribute to situations where younger individuals are forced into sexual relationships with older partners against their will. The Children’s Act of 2005 sets the minimum legal age for girls and boys to get married in South Africa to 18 years. However, according to the global partnership Girls Not Brides loopholes and inconsistencies throughout the legislation allow girls to be married at the age of 15 with parental consent, while the legal minimum age for boys remains 18.
7. Societal Stigma & Lack of Support Services
The stigma surrounding discussions of sex, relationships, and sexual abuse can prevent open conversations about these issues, leaving young people uninformed and afraid to seek assistance. Limited access to counseling, support services, and safe spaces for young people can leave them more vulnerable to exploitation and less equipped to seek help when needed.
How to Prevent Statutory Rape
Based on the causes of statutory rape, there is a long list of steps that need to be taken in order to reduce the risk of children, particularly young girls, to fall victim to the crime.
1. Comprehensive Sex Education
One of the most effective ways to prevent statutory rape is by providing comprehensive sex education. This education should not only cover the biological aspects of human sexuality but also emphasize healthy relationships, consent, and the legal age of consent. By arming young people with accurate information, we empower them to make informed decisions and understand their rights.
For example, in addition to their free 24/7 helpline number (*134*7355#), TEARS Foundation has launched a digital gender-based violence educational tool called Speak Up.
2. Promoting Consent Education
Teaching the concept of consent is paramount in preventing statutory rape. Individuals must understand that consent must be freely given, informed, enthusiastic, and ongoing throughout any sexual activity. Encouraging open discussions about consent helps to dispel myths, challenge misconceptions, and promote respectful communication between partners.
3. Raising Awareness
Raising awareness about the legal consequences of statutory rape can serve as a deterrent. Community campaigns, workshops, and online resources can help educate both young people and adults about the gravity of this crime. By emphasizing the harm caused to minors and the potential lifelong consequences, we discourage individuals from engaging in such behavior.
4. Strengthening Reporting Mechanisms
Creating a safe and confidential space for victims to report instances of statutory rape is crucial. Schools, helplines, and online platforms should be easily accessible for individuals seeking help. Moreover, these reporting mechanisms should ensure that victims receive the necessary support, including counseling and legal assistance.
The last chapter of this article contains a list of organisations where victims can seek help.
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5. Parental and Guardian Involvement
Parents and guardians play a pivotal role in preventing statutory rape. By fostering open communication with their children about relationships, sex, and consent, caregivers can equip young people with the knowledge and confidence to protect themselves. Encouraging a safe and trusting environment at home allows children to seek guidance when facing uncomfortable situations. A recent study published by the National Library of Medicine “identified that communication concerns influence parent–child dialogue on sexuality education. Therefore, there is a need to address factors hindering communication such as cultural barriers, role shifting in imparting sexuality education and poor parent–child relationships.”
6. Legal Measures
Laws regarding the age of consent and statutory rape must be clear, consistent, and enforced rigorously. Legal measures can include stricter penalties for offenders, particularly those in positions of authority or influence over minors.
7. Community Support
Creating a community that prioritizes the safety and well-being of its members is essential. Schools, religious institutions, youth centers, and other community organizations can collaborate to provide workshops, support groups, and educational events that address the prevention of statutory rape. When the entire community is invested in safeguarding its youth, the chances of such incidents decrease.
How to Report Statutory Rape
If you or someone you know are a victim of statutory rape and need support, please reach out to the following:
- The Trauma Centre
- Thuthuzela Care Centres
- Child Line – 08000 55 555
- SAPS Family Violence, Child Protection and Family Violence Unit: 010 590 5920
- Jelly Beanz Foundation: 021 556 2456
- PATCH: 021 852 6110
- Gender-Based Violence Command Centre: 0800 428 428
- STOP Gender Violence Helpline: 0800 150 150/ *120*7867