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Finding real solutions to the problem of defilement

Fri, 23 May 2014 Source: Owusu, Mike

A recent case in a small isolated village in the Ashanti region has caught the attention and concern of staff at Light for Children. An 18-year-old man was convicted of defiling a 14-year-old girl who is now pregnant. He was originally sentenced to 15 years in prison, though we now are told he will only be serving 10 years.

The incident took place when the girl visited the boy in his room. She says she was forced, but he claims that she was his girlfriend and that the sex was consensual. Because the girl was underage, the magistrate found him guilty of defilement and applied a harsh sentence.

We are concerned that the young man may not have been fairly judged. We met with community leaders, including the school management committee, who told us the boy was not well-liked in the village because he was a school dropout who was working for the local gold mines. But after he received his long sentence, some expressed regret that the case had ever gone to court. Several of the village leaders also felt that the harsh sentence would add to the pressure on future accused criminals to bribe victims to “kill the case.”

In Ghana the minimum sentence for defilement is 7 years; the maximum is 25 years. Often adults who defile even young children get sentences of less than 10 years. Recently a 24-year-old teacher was sentenced to 8 years in prison for defiling a 13-year-old girl. Two years ago, a 30-year-old man was sentenced to 9 years for defiling a 6-year-old. Also in 2012, a 25-year old was jailed 12 years for defilement, but in this case the victim was only 4 years old. In all these cases the convicts pleaded guilty. Against this background, in a case where the victim was less than 5 years younger than the perpetrator, and there is doubt about whether or not there was consent, a 10-year sentence seems disproportionate. The initial 15-year sentence suggests that the magistrate was not inclined to judge the case fairly.

Light for Children takes sexual assault cases very seriously, especially cases of child sexual abuse. We are supporting the victim and her family by helping her gain access to proper medical care, providing counselling and funds for good antenatal nutrition, and hopefully supporting her in the future to return to school or vocational training. We also work to prevent cases of child sexual abuse by offering a series of school workshops educating children and teens about the dangers and consequences of sexual assault. We feel that education and awareness will do more to deter such behaviour than unpredictable and sometimes arbitrarily long prison sentences.

Many young people in Ghana are not well informed about legalities like the age at which teenagers are allowed to consent to sex. They are often unclear about what constitutes consent, and uninformed about the consequences of sexually assaulting somebody. For this reason, it is more appropriate to consider a lighter sentence for such a young offender. He will now spend some of his most formative years in prison, where he will likely learn to copy the values and behaviours of his new peers, who will be convicts and criminals.

Heavy sentences for sexual assault are intended to set an example and show that the crime is a serious one, but paradoxically such sentences often prevent cases from coming to light. At Light for Children, we often hear of cases where the accused perpetrator offers money to the family of the victim in order to avoid prosecution. Families would rather keep an older man who is a breadwinner from going to prison for many years, where he would be unable to support his extended family. Parents of very young adults know how damaging a long prison sentence is to their sons’ futures. They may want their children to be held accountable for their actions, but not at such a heavy cost.

A country pays a price for long prison sentences. Incarceration costs taxpayers a lot of money. Also, the longer a convict is in prison, the less he or she is able to fit in to normal society upon release, often leading to re-offending. Vocational training and education in prisons help in many cases, but the good can easily be outweighed by the negative effects of overly long institutionalization, especially when the prisoners enter prison at a young age. Long prison terms also do nothing to deter crime or help victims, and can even encourage communities to sweep cases under the carpet and operate outside the law when dealing with offenders. Focusing on education, prevention, and rehabilitation would be a much more beneficial use of Ghana’s resources.

Columnist: Owusu, Mike