Protecting Children’s Vulnerability

Protecting Children’s Vulnerability

By Dieter Lubbe

The following headline appeared in the Sowetan Newspaper recently. 1000 Schoolgirls Fall Pregnant in One Year in Ekurhuleni.  These types of reports and other research evidence, highlighting sexual abuse, is becoming overwhelmingly commonplace in South Africa. This should give us pause as we consider each young life is more than a mere number. This tragic abuse of youth vulnerability highlights the ongoing struggle to uphold the rule of law in the area of gender based violence in our country. We all need to consider how we can position ourselves to support the efforts of law enforcement as we join with the movement to end sexual exploitation. The Times Live reporting on the same case noted:

Hlomela Bucwa‚ MP and Democratic Alliance member of the Portfolio Committee on Higher Education and Training‚ highlighted social ills and education failures during a youth day address in Parliament last month. She cited statistics showing that between 2014 and 2016‚ a total of 42‚253 pupils from Grades 3 to 12 fell pregnant – noting that 193 of these pupils were in Grades 3‚ 4 and 5. The DA commented on the pre-teen and teenager pregnancies in a previous release‚ stating: “This information should shock every South African. Young girls‚ most under the legal age of 16‚ are having their futures undermined‚ likely through being taken advantage of or abused.”

Getting “informed” about CONSENT?

The last sentence in the quote above, ‘Young girls‚ most under the legal age of 16‚ are having their futures undermined‚ likely through being taken advantage of or abused.” strikes a nerve for us at Pinion Project. Our vision is to defend human dignity and the right to be safe, empowered, and free from sexual exploitation. With this in mind, this article looks at the notion of consent within the context of the sexulisation of children (with reference to South Africa).

To be clear, in terms of the sugar daddy or so-called ‘blessers,’ this behavior must be condemned. SA Criminal Law Section 17 leaves no doubt that any child involved in ‘transactional sex’ is being sexually exploited. Hence, consensual sexual relations do not include a right to prostitution and cannot be interpreted to include adult/child sexual relations. We need to guard against being distracted from this point.

By way of background information to our understanding, we need to make an effort to grasp some the basic concepts in South African law before we get going in this article. According to the South African Sexual Offences Act definition, ‘consent’ means voluntary or uncoerced agreement. The South African Criminal Law (Sexual offences and Related Matters) was signed into law in 2007. This law criminalised sexual activity between children under the age of 16. However, in 2013, the Constitutional Court agreed that Section 15 (which criminalised sexual activity between adolescents) was unconstitutional. Government subsequently amended Section 15, which now reads:

A person (‘A’) who commits an act of sexual penetration with a child (‘B’) who is 12 years of age or older but under the age of 16 years is, despite the consent of B to the commission of such an act, is guilty of the offence of having committed an act of unconsensual sexual penetration with a child, unless A, at the time of the alleged commission of such an act, was— (a) 12 years of age or older but under the age of 16 years; or (b) either 16 or 17 years of age and the age difference between A and B was not more than two years.

Simply put, an adult who has consensual sex with a child between the ages of 12 and 16, is guilty of statutory rape, despite consent. However, if children between the ages of 12 and 16 engage in consensual penetrative sex acts with each other, it is not considered a crime. Similarly, a 17 year old can legally engage in consensual penetrative sex with a younger child, provided there is no more than a two year age gap between them. This is not to imply that  everything legally allowed is beneficial to be sure. The court contended that the law was not the best instrument for shaping children’s consensual behaviour. Sex education then becomes a significant focus in the fight to empower families and communities. We cannot overemphasize this point. Our concern ethically speaking, is that we always ensure that consent is sufficiently informed. After all, consent, if it is anything, is an act of reason and deliberation. The mind weighs in on the balance between good and evil. Children, in particular, cannot be expected to carry this burden alone (I will argue this point in some detail later in this essay).

According to South Africa’s National Strategic Plan for HIV, TB and STIs 2017-2022.

‘Young women (aged between 15 and 24 years) in South Africa have the highest HIV incidence of any age or sex cohortOne third of teenage girls become pregnant before the age of 20. Responding to the social and structural drivers of this vulnerability (which leads young women towards having sexual relationships – many of which are transactional in nature – with men who are five to 10 years older than they are) is key to controlling the epidemic.’

In this light of the HIV and STIs epidemic, using the word, ‘consent’, takes on a deeper ethical commitment. Consent in this frame should be informed. By way of example, the permission a patient gives to a doctor for treatment is based on the information that the doctor communicated to the patient regarding the possible risks and benefits of the treatment. Now due to the health risks in this public health crisis, this legal usage of ‘informed consent’ is relevant in public sex education policy.  As seen above, the need for information on Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs) is important for anyone who is evaluating the risks of consensual sex acts (also see footnote on abortion). The conversation takes an important turn at this point as we consider ‘child sexual rights’. Again for context we note with Carmen Barroso, Western Hemisphere Regional Director for Planned Parenthood Federation, stated, ‘Traditional human rights, they were civil and political. Rights, they were not referring to the sexuality of anybody.’ The inclusion of ‘sexual rights’ language under the umbrella of human rights was never the intent of original human rights declarations or agreements.

Child Rights Public Education?

It is generally agreed upon that it is parent’s job to teach children how to be happy, healthy adults. Children need to learn the social rules about how and when to interact with others and with whom they should interact. Parents and guardians need to live and teach a culture of respect. This starts when little children first start learning about sharing toys etc. Respect and permission must be part of everyday living and not only our most intimate interactions. We believe that the grounding of human rights and values starts with the recognition of the dignity of every person. Human dignity says that people are amazing. Dignity in this frame also makes a relational claim, we are to recognise the dignity in others. Collectively, this Dignity calls for a limitation of state authority when it comes to matters of indifference. Dignity in this rough and ready sense then needs to be honored by humanity.

The need to educate parents and guardians is very important. However, this family and community view has been significantly challenged by a sexual entitlement narrative (which gained momentum in the 1960’s). Foundational to this view is the belief that any sex with anybody is probably a good thing; it is not about marriage or having children or the building of healthy societies. Non-procreative sexual expression is a simple necessity intrinsically tied to human fulfillment and personal identity (according to United States of America’s Supreme Court). Sex then is ultimately subject to one’s own desires (to obtain sexual pleasure).

With this ideological undercurrent in mind, it is easier to see why so many believe that sexual rights  – split the value of sex from the facts of biology. This is particularly relevant when it comes to public sex education. Family Watch International (a nonprofit international educational organisation in consultative status with the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations) states that most of the United Nation ‘comprehensive sexuality education’ programs contain many of the following components:

  • Teach children to advocate for “sexual rights.”
  • Denigrate the religious and cultural values of their parents or community.
  • Teach children various ways to obtain sexual pleasure.
  • Promote condoms to children without informing them of their failure rates.
  • Teach children to masturbate.
  • Encourage children to experiment sexually with individuals of their own sex or the opposite sex.
  • Promote anal or oral sex to children or teach them these behaviours are safe.
  • Promote promiscuity to children as a ‘right’.
  • Provide sexual counselling, information or services to minors without parental consent.
  • Avoid unwanted pregnancies and unsafe abortions;

These UN comprehensive sexuality education ‘components’ suggest a negative individualism that is not helpful.  The distinction here is as Bruce C. Hafen, Professor of Law, Brigham Young University points out,

“…‘protection rights’ rather than ‘choice rights’ for children… Giving children choices that they are not prepared to make can actually undermine the fulfilment of their most essential needs—which, in effect, abandons them to their rights. By their very nature as developing persons, children are dependent on parents and other adults to help them meet their needs.”

Good legislation and policy are guiding principles of ‘In the best interests of the child’. Yet, as we see above, it has proved difficult to translate these rights and protections into the everyday lived experience of so many women and children. So what can be said? The problem is that, without a sense of a true good in relationships, we don’t know to what we should consent. It is uncontroversial to assert that monogamous relationships, like marriage, have significant benefits to the couple, their children and society at large in terms of health outcomes. However, negative individualism is eroding even this legitimate framing of relationships. If people think that human rights are about the pursuit of pleasure and sensual self-indulgence (hedonism), they are more likely to indulge in sexual vice. The central tenet of hedonism—that the good consists in the experiential—is incorrect. This intern impacts everybody as Professor Robert P George put it,

“…private acts of vice, when they multiply and become widespread, can imperil important public interests. This fact embarrasses philosophical efforts to draw a sharp line that distinguishes a realm of “private” morality that is not subject to law from a domain of public actions that may rightly be subjected to legal regulation.”

The need for South Africans to speak out against negative individualism, as we reflect on our collective responsibility, is very important. Professor of Ethics at Brigham University, Karu, Nigeria Samuel Waje Kunhiyop notes;

“It is a shame that negative individualism is beginning to be imbibed by Africans. The breakdown of law and the emergence of many other moral crises can be attributed mainly to overemphasis on individual rights and freedom.”

It is the case that abstinence from sexual intercourse is the most effective method of preventing unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV among our youth. This claim is often challenged via the educational outcomes of something called ‘abstinence based sexual education’ vs ‘comprehensive sexuality education’. The evidence, we are told, indicates that children who are taught to, ‘abstain only’, are statistically more at risk than children who are fully informed on every sexual proclivity. In formal logic, a false dichotomy sets up two alternative points of view as if they were the only options, argues against one of them, and thereby concludes that the other must be true. As I have argued above, we should not be so easily distracted by this myopic view when we are faced with very difficult ethical questions.


The sexual entitlement narrative and the permission-giving beliefs that result in gender based violence is forcing us to reassess our collective responsibilities and reasoning. We believe both parents and children are being influence by a sexulised cultural narrative. The sexulised cultural narrative tells a deceptive story about child-autonomy in the frame of consensual sex rights. Hedonism is mistaken and therefore when it is illegitimately connected with ‘new sexual rights’ it is mistaken (biology is not bigotry as some have said). This fact must buttress our efforts and policy vision in the defence of human dignity and the right to be safe, empowered, and free from sexual exploitation.  


Currently the political rhetoric tends to focus on the ‘unplanned babies’ with an eye on the overseas funding that this framing of the situation could motivate. When a teenager falls pregnant, we understand that it is not because her body manifests a pregnancy as the result of an illness. Hence, conflating of teen pregnancy with HIV and STIs illness is a common mistake in reason. What is in view are the issues around birth control, statutory rape and consent between children. The difficulty with birth control we suggest, is what often starts as a conversation about the right to be protected from the illegal practice in medicine, turns into an ideological duty to use abortion as birth control. This view is fraught with inconvenient facts. Planned Parenthood Federation, recently acknowledged an alarming “surge” in maternal deaths in South Africa even though that country, since 1996, has had some of the most permissive abortion laws on the African continent.’ Much more can be said about this as we put aside the myth that abortion on demand is the best use of the budget. Ethically, we are committed to point out that abortions have both short – and long-term adverse effects including:


  • Accidental tearing of uterine artery, tearing of the cervix, or scarring of the uterine wall
  • Heavy bleeding, requiring blood transfusions
  • Abdominal cramping, nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, and infection
  • Allergic reaction to drugs or anesthesia, sometimes causing convulsions, or worse
  • Heart attack, embolisms (caused by blood clots or other foreign matter in blood
  • vessels)
  • Perforation of the uterus and damage to other internal organs
  • Miscarriage of future pregnancies, infertility or sterility
  • Increased risk of subsequent tubal pregnancies
  • Death (some estimates as high as 20 percent of maternal deaths are due to abortion)
  • Guilt, anger, anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts
  • Anniversary grief, flashbacks of abortion, memory repression
  • Sexual dysfunction, relationship problems


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