Zimbabwe’s Constitutional Court has ruled that the legal age of sexual consent should be increased from 16 to 18 years old. The judgment is welcomed news by many in a country where advocates say early pregnancies are forcing hundreds of girls to leave school.
In a judgement handed down by Zimbabwe’s highest court, provisions in the Criminal Law that set the age of consent for sex at 16 were struck down as unconstitutional.
Following the court’s decision, parliament and minister of justice have one year to “enact a law that protects all children from sexual exploitation in accordance with the provisions of the Constitution,” the ruling read.
The case was brought by two women who were married as children.
Many welcomed the ruling in hopes that criminalizing sex with underage girls could help decrease the prevalence of teenaged pregnancies and early marriages. Government officials and human rights advocates say such pregnancies have spiked following the outbreak of COVID-19, which resulted in extended school closures and widespread economic hardship.
“It is vital that we protect children, especially girls. This ruling will not stop child abuse, but it will mitigate, it offers a deterrent,” Tendai Biti, a lawyer who argued the case, said Thursday.
“This ruling guarantees protection of girls under 18. In the past we had old men taking advantage of girls. Pedophiles were getting away with abuse,” said Talent Jumo, director of Katswe Sistahood, a group that campaigns for girls’ rights. She called the court’s judgement “a landmark.”
The age of consent for sex has for long been controversial in Zimbabwe. Campaigners argued that the 16-year age for consent was too low and allowed for the exploitation of minors.
However, Justice Minister Ziyambi Ziyambi argued in parliament late last year that “most children are mature, beyond their age nowadays and are already sexually active.” He claimed that raising the age of consent to 18 “means children below the age of 18 having sexual intercourse will be criminalized” and have “unwanted criminal records.”
In 2016, the Constitutional Court outlawed marriage before the age of 18, after a challenge to provisions of the marriage law that allowed early marriages.
In the latest case, Biti argued on behalf of the two women that it was unconstitutional that children could not be married until they attain 18 “yet the law allowed them to be abused from the age of 16.” Biti is also a leading figure in the opposition Citizens Coalition for Change party.
“Men were now having their cake and eating it too, so in some instances a man could say ‘I slept with you, I want to marry you but the law says I can’t marry you but I can have sex with you’.” Zimbabwe’s constitution defines a child as someone below the age of 18.
However, even supporters of the latest ruling urged caution, pointing out that more needs to be done to eradicate entrenched religious and traditional cultural norms, as well as deepening poverty all of which can promote teen pregnancies and child marriages.
“Religious and other groups that had made this a norm are a major threat and need to be stopped. Secondly, children should be protected from the negative consequences of early sexual debut by providing access to sexual reproductive and health rights information and also provide for a ‘Romeo and Juliet’ clause in the law to guard against criminalizing adolescent sexual activity,” said Jumo, of Katswe Sistahood.
The “Romeo and Juliet clause” in legal terms often seeks to protect from criminal prosecution underage children who engage in consensual sexual activity with each other.