The phrase “sweet sixteen and never been kissed” refers to the innocence of childhood and the coming of age of children. It also relates to the increased need for autonomy by adolescents. However, it is highly improbable that the average child in South Africa, when reaching the age of sixteen years, has never been kissed.
Children’s rights are categorised as rights of protection (the state and parents have a duty to protect children from sexual abuse and exploitation) and rights of autonomy.
The Choice on Termination of Pregnancy Act 92 of 1996 provides for the right of female children of any age to consent to the termination of a pregnancy if all the requirements are met. In terms of the Children’s Act 38 of 2005, persons who are responsible for the care of a child must guide, advise and assist such child. A child must have access to information regarding sexuality and reproduction, and has clear rights from a young age with regard to consenting to medical treatment and HIV testing, as well as to access to contraceptives.
Sections 15 and 16 of the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences and Related Matters) Amendment Act 32 of 2007 deal with consensual sexual acts with adolescents - a person who commits a sexual act with an adolescent is, despite the consent of such adolescent, guilty of an offence. Adolescents and children between the ages of sixteen and eighteen years can also be offenders. There is an obligation on a person with knowledge of a sexual offence that has been committed to report same to the South African Police Service. The particulars of a convicted person must be inserted in the National Register for Sex Offenders. These reporting obligations limit the child’s rights to consent to the termination of a pregnancy, to access contraceptives and confidential contraceptive advice and to consent to HIV testing. It also limits the ability of adults to provide children with sex education, advice and guidance.
The court in the The Teddy Bear Clinic for Abused Children and RAPCAN v Minister of Justice and Constitutional Development and National Director of Public Prosecutions (73300/2010)  ZAGPPHC 1 (4 January 2013) found that certain sections of the Sexual Offences Act are unconstitutional. However, three main issues remain unaddressed. Firstly, the above-mentioned provisions in the Choice on Termination of Pregnancy Act and the Children’s Act still send out contradictory messages, leading to legal uncertainty. Secondly, the diversion provisions of the Child Justice Act 75 of 2008 are not, in totality, relevant to consensual sexual acts between children, and expose children to the criminal justice system. Thirdly, the reporting provisions of the Sexual Offences Act pose serious challenges.
To address the above, it is recommended that the state should embark on a nation-wide information campaign, the national statutory and institutional framework should be reviewed, rationalised and aligned, information relating to the appropriate education of children should be disseminated, and the reporting requirement in the Sexual Offences Act be amended.