Age-of-consent law is complex. If it is set too high, there’s a risk that it will undercut young people’s agency. If it is set too low, it does not offer enough protection for vulnerable young people. This is a conundrum Sierra Leone has faced in the last decade. In the aftermath of its civil war, the country has focused on ways to address sexual violence and protect young girls from sexual harassment and grooming. One approach was to create and enact laws designed to criminalise violence and empower women and girls. The Sexual Offences Act is one example of such legislation. Here, the work of the country’s lawmakers has yielded some positive results: the act protects children, especially girls, who are abused by adults. But it also circumscribes teenagers’ autonomy. The act raised the age of consent for girls and boys to 18. This effectively criminalises sexual activity between consenting young adults. As I repeatedly witnessed in court cases during more than a year of fieldwork in the capital city, Freetown, it often results in boys from economically marginalised families being imprisoned after their consensual sexual relationships lead to a young woman falling pregnant. It is presumed by the girls’ families and the wider community that such boys cannot afford to support his partner and their child. This law, along with the country’s ban on pregnant girls attending school, actually harms young women rather than protecting them. Violence is not just a private matter between people. Regulating it is not the duty of communities or the state alone. Rather, it is the dialogue and the tensions between these different forces which expose not only how things are “supposed to work”, but also how they “really work”. Lawmakers and those who craft policy that’s meant to empower and protect women need to consider and take seriously the knowledge of grassroots women’s groups and the criticism voiced by citizens and law enforcement. In this way, Sierra Leone can amend what doesn’t work in its legal framework and strengthen what does, to engender real change.
This article was first published by the Conversation on 23 January, 2019. link to the publication.