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Last Updated: Friday, 1 October, 2004, 08:50 GMT 09:50 UK
What is a 'right' age of consent?
By Laura Smith-Spark
BBC News Online

Seven men from Pitcairn stand accused of sexually abusing children - charges they deny and which the island's women say stem from ignorance of its customs.

BBC News Online looks at the age of sexual consent around the world and how one nation may differ from another.
Ana-Maria Cioaba
Child marriages among the Roma hit the headlines in 2003

Many wives, mothers and sisters of the accused in Pitcairn claim under-age sex was a traditional part of life for girls on the British Pacific colony.

Sex was consensual, they say, and the charges of rape and assault unfair.

But prosecutors argue there was an ingrained culture of using children for sex on the island - an offence under British law, which judges have ruled applies to the island as an overseas territory.

In the UK, the age of sexual consent for women has been set at 16 since 1885, when campaigners fought to raise it from 13 to prevent child prostitution.

Argentina - 15
Bahamas - 16
Canada - 14
Colombia - male 14, female 12
India - 18
Indonesia - male 19, female 16
Hungary - 14
Peru - male 14, female 12
Tunisia - 20
UK - 16
US - federal age 16

Of course, that law came a full century after the mutineers who took over the British Navy vessel HMS Bounty settled on Pitcairn in 1790.

Other nations across the world have set the legal age for sexual consent at anything from 12 to 20.

In New Zealand, where many Pitcairn residents go for jobs and education, the age of consent is fixed at 16.

But travel in the opposite direction across the Pacific to Peru and the age of consent for girls is 12 - "as long as there is no violence or intimidation".

These are arguments made by men who want to have sexual access to children
Dr Sarah Nelson
Edinburgh University

To marry, Peruvian girls need only be older than 12 and boys older than 14, according to the global police body Interpol's website.

Dr Sarah Nelson, a researcher in child sexual abuse at Edinburgh University, said wide variations in the age of consent were too often accepted as the result of cultural and religious differences.

She said: "There's a danger in being too respectful of cultural arguments.

"People say 'within our culture we do it this way or that way' but we know so much now about child abuse.

Pitcairn islanders
Some of Pitcairn's women have spoken out in defence of the men

"These are arguments made by men who want to have sexual access to children."

She said the exact age of consent, whether 15, 16, or 17, would always be arbitrary but was designed to protect children from exploitation by more powerful adults.

Child sex and marriage tended to occur "in cultures where women and children are very much second class citizens, are very much controlled by men" and did not have the freedom to speak out, Dr Nelson said.

Look around the world and it becomes apparent that establishing exactly what is allowed where is no easy task.

The sexual abuse of children by adults to satisfy their own perversions is a global problem

In the United States, the federal age of consent is 16. But in Texas children can marry as young as 14 provided they have the agreement of parents and a judge.

Interpol's entry for Pakistan cites the age of consent for sexual activity as 18 for men and 16 for women, although women can marry at 14.

In Burundi in Africa the age is decided on a region-by-region basis, while the Gulf state Oman says sexual activity is not allowed, except in legal marriage.

Interpol said it had asked member countries to supply information on their own national laws on sex and marriage to help identify abuse where it occurs.

Pitcairn's mayor Steve Christian
Pitcairn's mayor Steve Christian has denied child sex charges

"The sexual abuse of children by adults to satisfy their own perversions is a global problem," it said.

"Children are the most vulnerable individuals in society, they are also the most precious commodity that the world has and have a right to be protected from all forms of abuse."

The problem of navigating different countries' laws was thrown up by the case of a 14-year-old Rachael Lloyd, from Wales, who ran away with a 24-year-old Turkish waiter she met on holiday in 2002.

He was then jailed by a Turkish court for statutory rape, which he denied on the grounds he thought she was 15 - the legal age of consent in Turkey.

You wouldn't wish to see a situation where what is normal experimental sexual development becomes criminalised
Pam Hibbert, Barnardo's

Last year the issue of child marriage among the Roma hit the headlines after the daughter of a gypsy king in Romania was apparently forced into a marriage against her will.

The Romanian child protection agency stepped in to separate Ana-Maria Cioaba, whose age was reported as either 12 or 14, from her 15-year-old husband. Romania's legal minimum age for marriage is 16.

Family members said the girl had been promised in marriage when she was just seven, for a price of 500 gold coins.

'Zero tolerance'

Children's charity Barnardo's said a consent age of 16 was considered reasonable in the UK because it allowed teenagers to develop sexually but protected them from abuse by adults.

Pam Hibbert, principal policy officer for Barnardo's, said: "I wouldn't want any child whether they are 13 or 16 to be in a sexually exploitative situation.

"But also you wouldn't wish to see a situation where what is normal experimental sexual development becomes criminalised just because the young people happen to be under 16."

The UN's children's fund, Unicef, said it had a zero tolerance policy to the sexual exploitation of children "however and whenever it occurred".

"Regardless of the age of consent, the age of protection against sexual exploitation ought to extend to all those under 18 in all national and extraterritorial legislation."

Pitcairn mayor denies rape charge
30 Sep 04 |  Asia-Pacific
Pitcairn women blast sex trials
29 Sep 04 |  Asia-Pacific
Holiday romance barman jailed
26 Feb 04 |  Wales
Sex law changes imminent
15 Oct 03 |  UK

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