Just how old is old enough?

Just how old is old enough?

Though Muslims are known to be conservative in topics related to sex, the umma (community) acknowledges that premarital sex involving minors is rampant and needs to be addressed soberly in line with Islamic teachings

A proposal by judges Roselyn Nambuye, Daniel Musinga and Patrick Kiage to lower the age of consent to 16 has triggered a national debate and conversation around the age old taboo topic of sex.

Presently, the age of sexual consent stands at 18, which according to the judges is long overdue and needs to be revisited as men were languishing in jail for sleeping with teens “who were willing to be and appeared to be adults”.

In their ruling the three judges stated that the country should discuss challenges of maturing children, morality, autonomy, protection of children and the need for proportionality in punishing sex pests.

Further, they argued that it is unrealistic to assume that teenagers and maturing adults do not engage in sex.

If their proposals are to materialise, Kenya could join United States, Canada, New Zealand and the United Kingdom whose age of consent stands at 16 according to www.worldpopulationreview.com. 

Nigeria has the lowest consent age at just 11. This is followed by Angola and the Philippines at 12, and several other countries, including South Korea and Japan at 13.

Interestingly, a number of countries in Asia and Africa require individuals to be married before they can legally have sex. These include Libya, Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia, all of which are known to be highly conservative on issues around gender and sexuality. 

So what are the voices and concerns of Muslims around this conversation?

Marhaba Life and Style, was up and about in Majengo slums-Nairobi and caught up with Ali Ambari-a local youth leader.

Ali, who is also a parent, doesn’t see what all the fuss is about. “Firstly, the judges were right to acknowledge that our teenagers and maturing adults are engaging in sex outside marriage. In Majengo and other slums/deprived areas country wide, it is normal to find children whose age is as low as 11 years having sex. However, it is wrong-legally.”

Thus, according to Ali, the judges need not be criticized for their suggestion. One needs to go slum areas and you’re likely to concur with them in such a debate. Here children bearing children, defilement and ‘early marriages’ just to mention but a few cases is nothing new.

 “Similar cases of consenting young adults have been brought to me and even forwarded to Kamukunji Police Station and concerned parents opted for an ‘out of court talks’. Usually, it is poverty driving these children into sex in return for favours,” he says.

Just like Ali, Umar Yunus-also a youth leader concurs with the judges.

“The age of consent should be reviewed. Children are hitting puberty earlier than before and their bodies’ na wana moto (boiling with desire). Actually, I would recommend marriage. Why wait until these children get pregnant out of wed-lock?”

Ustadh Faruq Njoroge from South B-Nairobi has every reason to agree with the judges. “In Islam, a child is held accountable for his/her actions when they reach puberty.

“They are held to account of their religious obligations such as prayers and fasting which begins from the day they reach puberty and hence other responsibility starts here.”

Faruq is however sad that it is young girls who end up bearing the brunt of such relationships should they go wrong. 

Sheikh Shariff Twaha from Kibra, Nairobi is also for the lowering of the age to consent.

“Times have changed and from where I come from, that is, Kibra, children are sexually active as early as 12 years. I would recommend it be lower further to 14. Let’s not be deceived, the reality on the ground is that children are engaging in sex out of marriage which contravenes what Islam teaches us.”

Sheikh Shariff who has stayed for quite a long time in Yemen and Saudi Arabia says that young adults in these conservative countries are encouraged to marry very early in life hence his reasoning.

Ustadh Suleiman Issa-the Assistant Imam at Adams Mosque in Nairobi is dismayed that this debate is even going on. “It’s like promoting sex out marriage by giving men undue advantage over minors. What should be discussed are solutions like reviewing the age of marriage.” 

According to Ustadh Suleiman, there is a popular phrase that goes mbona ufuge ng’ombe ilhali waweza pata maziwa? (That one can get milk without necessarily grazing cattle).  Such a debate serves to further entrench this view that engaging in sex is alright without fear of any responsibilities whatsoever. 

Further Ustadh Suleiman warns that underage girls will be tempted to misrepresent facts/forgery in regard to their ages with the sole purpose of engaging in premarital sex. 

Ustadh Suleiman recalls that during last years’ national exams, children as young as 13 were writing class 8 exams inside maternity wards. “It’s the pregnancy that stopped them otherwise it shows they were actively engaging in sex much earlier.”  

Swaleh Abdallah from Kariobangi-Nairobi calls upon Muslims to come forward and state their position on this matter.

He is opposed to the idea of lowering this age and is categorical that in Islam there is nothing like boy/girl relationships unless there has been a nikah (wedding). Further, even if the children have reached Baligh (puberty), they are still under parental care.  

“The perception is that children will take it that they are at liberty to engage in sex. This is wrong.”

Zuleikah Ibrahim-a parent is apprehensive and questions the motive behind lowering the age of consent.

When asked what could be contributing factors why children are sexually active at such young ages, those Marhaba Life and Style interviewed concur that the Westernization; fashion; media; negative peer influence; nutritious foodstuff; absence of parental guidance/responsibility among others as some of the reasons.

According to Sofia Omar-a counsellor, she is worried that because these children are undergoing adolescence and as such cannot fully comprehend the outcome of their actions. “They are neither adults nor children hence are not ready for the consequences of engaging in sex. It can devastate them emotionally and physically.”

Further, she says that comparisons should not be made between a 16 year old child in Africa with another in Europe or America.

Sofia recommends that counselling and sex education be strengthened in our schools.

Fatuma Abdulhakim is also against lowering  the age of consent but wonders why the debate only addresses the girl-child. What happens to the boy-child who is pressurised into sexual encounters by older women?

 Hassan a lawyer by profession says that since we live a country not governed by Islamic law, thus the Supreme law of the land-Kenya, is overall. Hence warns those that marry minors to be aware of the consequences of the law. (Read our editorial page on the same for more clarification)

The Da’awah Officer at Jamia Mosque-Nairobi, Mohammad Sheikh says it important to interrogate and understand the context in which the proposed law change is being made to avoid immorality.

“Civic education and public awareness needs to be carried out to inform the general public what is contained in the proposed law-that will calm our fears and doubts,” he said.   

So what is the position of Islam on this debate?

According to the national chairman Council of Imams and Preachers of Kenya (CIPK) Sheikh Abdalla Ateka, the debate on lowering the age of sexual consent needs to be guided by moral values, otherwise in essence we shall be telling our girls that it is okay to drop out of schools and marry.

He says that under-age boys and girls should be guided. “They should be given a chance to pursue and further their education so as to be responsible members of the society.”

Sheikh Ateka says that the natural minimum age for sexual relations is Baligh (puberty) and that maturity varies according to each society and other social factors.

“Islam encourages marriage as a form of religious practice, and considers it as the best form that regulates the sexual relationship of human beings. Thus a marriage contract should not be agreed before the age of puberty, unless there is a strong need to do so,” he says.

Sheikh Ateka stresses that adultery warrants severe punishment. Pre-marital sex is also considered sinful, noting that Islam does not allow a man to engage in intimate relations with a woman, until both of them are physically and mentally ready. All shari’a laws regulating sexual conduct applies to both men and women equally.

Finally, Sheikh Ateka gives an example of Aa’isha-The Prophet’s (SAW) wife.

“Her marriage was subject to the same conditions and laws as we have mentioned above, and was conducted with the full consent of her parents, who were already looking for a suitor for her.

The Prophet (SAW) did not live with Aa’isha, or have intimate relations with her, until she had reached the Islamic legal age of consent, according to the norms of the society at the time – something which was not criticised or challenged-even by his enemies.

She remained his wife for the rest of his life, and all of his other marriages were to women much older than Aa’isha.”

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