Malta needs ‘Romeo and Juliet’ laws that decriminalise underage, consensual sex between close-in-age teens, according to child ambassadors who believe that dropping the age of consent from 16 to 14 is not the solution.

Children’s Commissioner Antoinette Vassallo, the National Youth Council and the president of the Eurochild network Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca also agreed on the need for better sex education.

The issue came to the fore when a 15-year-old boy and his 14-year-old girlfriend ended up in court after she give birth to their baby. Social welfare officials flagged the matter to the relative authorities, triggering police investigations which ultimately led to criminal charges against the underage parents.

The teens were cleared as they chose not to testify against each other but Magistrate Abigail Critien suggested considering lowering the age of consent from 16 to 14.

If not, she said, the legislator should at least consider decriminalisation in cases where both underage minors of approximately the same age and same degree of maturity engage in consensual sex.

Vassallo, who has been Commissioner for Children for two years, said she disagreed with lowering the age of consent to 14 because it could put young people at risk of abuse.

“Minors under the age of 16 who engage in sexual relations with one another should not be criminalised as long as they were consensual and neither of the parties involved in the relationship was abused. The office calls for the decriminalisation of such an act so as to prevent children and adolescents from entering the justice system and for them to be able to access the necessary services,” she said.

Malta’s sexual health policy has not been updated in 14 years

In Malta, the age of consent was officially lowered from 18 to 16 in 2018 in a move that was welcomed by the National Youth Council.

But the council does not believe that lowering it further is the answer.

“When it comes to legal definitions, we highly favour the introduction of Romeo and Juliet laws, or a similar mechanism, to ensure a close-in-age exemption applies for younger persons engaging in consensual sex together, but not an overall lowering of the age of consent to 14,” the council said.

Romeo and Juliet laws, used in the US, provide that a person can legally have consensual sex with a minor provided that he or she is not more than a given number of years older, generally four years or less.

Better sex education

Coleiro Preca also agreed with decriminalising underage sex for close-in-age teens but said that lowering the age of consent will not solve this issue.

“Criminalising on its own will not usher in maturity or resolve.  A comprehensive sex education policy, and an education programme to empower young people to make the informed choices are paramount.”

The policy, she said, should apply from a young age with information of what consent, responsibility and rights are all about.

“Malta also needs a serious and constructive discussion on the different ages stipulated in different legislation where minors are considered mature to take on certain responsibilities.  A typical example is when children at the age of 16 years are allowed to marry with the consent of their parents. We have been called out as a country to address this issue of child marriage,” she said.

The National Youth Council spoke about the need for a comprehensive and intersectional sexual education programme to replace the current outdated one – the guidelines for which have not been updated since 2013.

“Leading global authorities, including the WHO and the UN, have shown that sex education in fact delays the initiation of sex, and empowers younger persons to identify and speak up in cases of abuse,” the council said, noting that Malta’s sexual health policy has not been updated in 14 years.

The outdated 2010 policy was originally meant to be released in 2021 but was sent back to the drawing board, because the research it was based on was found to be years out of date.  Its revision was further delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic. The Health Minister said it will be launched for consultation by the end of 2024.

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