Dr John Teo, an obstetrician and gynaecologist, recently penned an open letter to the Malay Mail Online that drew the healthcare community’s attention. In the letter, Dr Teo spelled out the current child sex laws and suggested that the government “insert the ‘sweetheart defence’ clause into the Sexual Offences Against Children Act (SOAC) without further delay”.

Clause to allow youths of similar ages to engage in sexual relations

In the current form of the SOAC Act, any sexual physical contact irrespective of whether sexual intercourse has taken place with a child – defined as aged below 18 – is criminalised. On top of that, statutory rape – as the Penal Code defines – considers 16 years old as the age of consent for sexual relations.

Thus, Dr Teo is calling for authorities to insert the “sweetheart defence” clause to decriminalise consensual sexual relationships between youths of similar ages.

Healthcare professionals need to take note as the current SOAC also renders it an offence for failing to lodge a police report upon knowing about crimes committed under this act.

As he wrote in his letter, “This creates a situation whereby any physical contact in a consensual relationship in our youth is an offence – as long as one partner is below 18 years old. For example, a couple may be 17 and 19 years old respectively.”

“The challenges are now, there are no safe heaven for any young couples in a consensual relationship whereby even when they see healthcare professionals, police report will be made,” he continued.

Tackling sexual health issues: Sexual education vs. criminalisation

Data highlighting the rise in baby dumping cases in the country and its links to the lack of sex education have been splashed over news sites of late. Elaborating on the topic of sexual education amongst youth in Malaysia, Dr Teo noted the barriers that will be faced in implementing this.

“Comprehensive sexuality education which includes pregnancy prevention methods teachings as versus abstinence-based sexuality education will now be more challenging to deliver and access to sexual and reproductive health services made more difficult in the current criminalisation of consensual relationships in young couples,” he elaborated.

The Sabah clinician also quoted the statistics of teenage pregnancies in the country – between 13,000 and 17,000 cases reported each year. Sadly, he stated that the 5th Malaysian Population and Family Survey in 2014 has shown that 2.3% of Malaysian teenagers aged between 13 and 17 are sexually active; but have poor sexual and reproductive health knowledge.

In addition to this, he asserted that international agreements have been addressing the need for sexual education amongst children and adolescents to prevent further public health problems. “Education rather than criminalisation is the way forward towards decreasing unintended pregnancies, abortions and baby dumping among our young,” he said. MIMS

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