Local leaders have asked that rape laws be amended.

The gups have recommended that the age of consent for sexual relations be reduced to 15 or 16 for girls. Sexual intercourse with a minor aged between 12-18 is categorised as rape of a child.

According to the Penal Code 2004, sexual relations with a child aged between 12-18 is a third degree felony (5-9 years imprisonment).

This could mean that, as pointed out by the gups, a 19-year-old who has sexual relations with a 17-year-old spends the next five to nine years in prison, possibly even leaving behind a child who is without a father for the term of imprisonment.

There are such cases reported from time to time. The courts today do not punish either partner if both are minors or below the age of 18. However, the female partner has to be aged 16 or 17 in this case.

But if the female partner is aged 16 or 17, and the male partner is aged 19 years, a sentence for a third degree felony can be handed down.

Clearly in such situations, there is a need for the courts to consider going case-by-case. The courts could take into consideration if the relationship was consensual, if a child is involved, and if the imprisonment of one parent would impede the development of the child. There is a need for compassion in such cases.

It maybe time to consider the introduction of the so-called Romeo and Juliet laws which prevent the prosecution of partners whose age difference is not significant, when the female partner is a minor aged 16 or whatever other age the state considers appropriate.

However, leniency must be applied only to such cases where there is a reasonable difference of age between the partners. Not only must the courts be confident of being able to determine there are reasons to be lenient but also to know what an appropriate age difference is.

This is because there are cases where adult men and women have had sexual relations with minors through coercion and misuse of authority, especially when visiting rural communities. Such sexual predators cannot be let of lightly and the law for such cases has to be uniformly applied.

What the conference also revealed is a need for more awareness on rape laws among local government leaders.

For instance, at least one gup felt that the law is silent when an adult women has sexual relations with a minor. Rape laws apply to both genders.

Some also said that boys and men feel victimised when girls misuse the child rape law to settle personal scores and other reasons. This indicates that more awareness has to be raised at the local level on rape laws. If more are aware about the law, people will be more cautious.