A recent suggestion by an opposition politician in St Vincent and the Grenadines that the age of consent should be raised from 16 to 18 to curb the incidence of violence against girls and young women has prompted calls from the Barbados Family Planning Association (BFPA) for a comprehensive education programme to allow teenagers to make informed decisions on consensual sex.
However, the BFPA has proposed a different route altogether, arguing that raising the age of consent is not the answer to social ills.
Executive Director Juliette Bynoe-Sutherland told Barbados TODAY the Vincentian politician’s recommendation would turn “a whole set” of teenagers into criminals.
In Barbados and other Caribbean countries, a complicated set of laws means teenagers can consent to sex at age 16, but they are not legally recognized as adults until they reach age 18 – the age at which they can access sexual health services without parental approval.
Bynoe-Sutherland suggested that the sensible thing to do is to allow teenagers to access these services at the lower age of 16.
“The main concerns is that you face the danger of criminalizing a whole set of young people between the ages of 16 and 18 who are having consensual sex between themselves, between peers.
“Certainly the Barbados Family Planning Association recognizes that there are age appropriate interventions that need to be made, but when it comes to the age of consent we’re very satisfied that the Government of Barbados has it right by having the age of consent set at 16.
“The challenge really is access to services for young people between the age of 16 and 18 who are given the right to consent to sex but can’t necessarily access services to get contraception, to get treatment for sexually transmitted infections without parental consent until they’re 18,” she said.
According to Bynoe-Sutherland, while it may sound logical to raise the age of consent, the “reality” is that 16 and 17-year-old teenagers engage in consensual sexual activity.
She believes a possible solution could be the adoption of recommendations by child advocate Faith Marshall-Harris to allow young people to access services to protect their sexual health and guard against unplanned pregnancies.
“It either has to be legislated, or a policy reform undertaken to allow the young people that we allow access to sex to be able to access services. That is what it is. It doesn’t have to be corrected by increasing the age at which you consent to sex.”
Concerns are likely to be raised in various circles that 16-year-olds are too young to access such services, but Bynoe-Sutherland believes Barbadians will support her proposal because it promotes “comprehensive sexuality education” which includes abstinence.
At the same time, she said, provisions must be made for those who engage in sexual activity to ensure that they “know how to protect yourself against unplanned pregnancies and against sexually transmitted infections” and they receive “proper parental guidance and dialogue” on the issue.
“There’s some young people who don’t have access to that parental guidance or they don’t necessarily have the spiritual or moral values to say ‘I’m going to abstain’. And we want to have a situation where those young people who become sexually active are able to access services,” she stressed.
Bynoe-Sutherland noted that comprehensive programmes will reap healthier outcomes, particularly when they address gender inequality that fosters violence against girls and