A significant debate is needed to once and for all tackle the issue of the age of consent throughout Europe (if not wider but perhaps one tangled web at a time). Recent comments by a leading Barrister in the UK, that suggested the age be dropped from 16 to 14, was met by a wave of hostility and incredulity from various childrens organisations and people whose work and lives are committed to safeguarding children.

The debate, however, is much more complex than reactions on an instinctive level. To my mind there are serious anomalies in some of our European partner countries that just don’t seem to make safeguarding sense. Germany for example, the power house of European economy and a country considered to be a sophisticated democracy still has the age of consent at 14 as long as a person over the age of 21 ‘does not exploit a 14–15 year-old person’s lack of capacity for sexual self-determination’

Spain has recently engaged in a critical debate following various cases that have come to light (one in particular where child of 13 insisted that she was having a consensual relationship with a man of 39), this was legal. Now the Spanish authorities are speaking out in favour of increasing the age of consent to 16 but apparently are receiving cultural objections from the large Romany community in Spain, who insist the age of marriage is part of their tradition at 13.

You can’t help but stereotype the Swiss for coming up with solutions that defy some logic, but actually could be applauded as forward thinking. They don’t criminalise sexual activity between young people if there is less than a 3 year age gap. Possibly this is honoured, informally, by many other countries including the UK.

One savage irony, given the very well-known problem of the number of Catholic Priests responsible for abusing children is that the age of consent in the Vatican until very recently was 12 and although they often defer to wider Italian Law, that, in itself only places the age of consent at 14. Now, at last, the age has changed to 18 inside the Vatican State.

The political climate at the moment includes some serious argument about the convergence of European Law and, whether or not you believe this to be a good thing, consistency in such a critical area as this would be welcome. With the inexorable rise in the influence of the internet, and therefore global access, young people are sharing information about each other’s lives in great detail and with incredible speed. Their attitudes and social permissions are influenced by their communities and the value systems at home. So some feel that they should be free to decide sexual activity before peers do elsewhere because the law permits it. The increase in vulnerability and danger to those young people is significant. At aged 13 or 14 it’s like driving cars or smoking, drinking in bars, getting married without parental consent, voting or joining the army. Difficult to accept that there is enough sophisticated understanding to make the best judgement.

Wherever you live, geographical boundaries aren’t always the protection they could be either

Child Protection professionals in the UK always adopt the line ‘when in this country UK law applies’ and that’s fine. But when UK citizens and children are abroad the same must also be the case, depending upon the country you are in. And so, when the tens of thousands of exchange visits take place, the question must be is there clarity and best information available? These homestays and school trips still hardly ever include proper vetting of host families. Impressionable young minds coupled with different rules in different countries are perfect ingredients for grooming, exploitation and easier availability of victims for traffickers.

What pan-European activity is being planned to address this? I haven’t heard of much.  I think it’s about time.

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