The Health ministry has objected to a proposal by the Court of Appeal that calls for the lowering of the sex consent age to 16 years.
In its submission, the ministry states that teenagers are in a transition period, which raises their risk of suffering psychological and physical harm.
“At this stage in life, adolescent girls experience rapid physical, emotional and cognitive growth,” the ministry’s position paper reads.
Appellate judges Roselyn Nambuye, Daniel Musinga and Patrick Kiage had ruled that time was ripe for the country to consider changing the Sexual Offenses Act, citing the lengthy jail terms imposed on young men convicted of defilement.
They made the observation in a case where they reversed a 15-year sentence slapped on a man who had impregnated a 17-year-old girl.
According to the judges, the country should discuss challenges of maturing children, which include morality, autonomy, protection of children and the need for proportionality in punishing sex pests.
They said debate on lowering the age of sexual consent was long overdue because men were languishing in jail for sleeping with teens “who were willing to be, and appeared to be, adults”.
The judges referred to the jail sentences as an unfolding tragedy.
“Our prisons are teeming with young men serving lengthy sentences for having had sexual intercourse with adolescent girls whose consent has been held to be immaterial because they were under 18 years,” the judges ruled.
According to the judges, it is unrealistic to assume that teenagers and maturing adults do not engage in sex.
Instead, they observed, underage girls and boys often engage in sexual relations “with their eyes fully open”.
But the Health ministry says although minors engage in sex, adolescent girls lack the skills to negotiate safe sex.
“Girls engaging in sex below the consent age risk exposure to pregnancies, unsafe abortion practices, maternal morbidity and mortality, early/child marriages, sexual-based violence, HIV/STI infections as well as mental health problems,” the ministry states.
To bolster its argument, the ministry argues that the 2014 Kenya Demographic and Health Survey highlights that one in every five teenage girls aged 15-19, who are either pregnant with their first child or have had a live birth, experiences challenges in keeping the pregnancy or raising the child.
“Early sex debut also exposes teenagers to risky sexual behaviour, including unsafe sex with multiple partners and medical complications such as secondary infertility in females and urethral strictures in male.
“These teenagers also have increased rates of suicidal tendencies and incident illiteracy. Adolescent pregnancy, whether intended or unintended, has been found to be a catalyst to rise in the risk of maternal mortality and morbidity,” the ministry states.
According to the ministry, maternal deaths recorded among adolescents rose from 335 in 2016 to 370 last year.
It noted that maternal mortality, coupled with HIV/Aids, were the main causes of death among young women aged between 15 to 24 years.
At the same time, the ministry observed that the number of girls seeking post-abortion care services had shot up from 4,475 in 2016 to 7,000 last year.
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