By Theresa Goodwin
Local gender advocacy group Intersect has added its voice to the growing number of organisations and residents who are calling for the immediate resignation or removal of Minister of Gender Affairs, Dean Jonas, for seemingly implying that young girls could consent to having sex with older men.
The group issued a statement Thursday afternoon condemning the comment made by the minister, and demanded that he makes a public apology and retraction.
They are also calling for the minister to resign with immediate effect and the role be given to “someone who is familiar with the unique challenges in addressing and combating gender-based violence in Antigua and Barbuda”.
Jonas made the comments during an interview on state media Wednesday as the nation prepared to host a slew of activities to raise awareness for the annual 16 Days of Activism Campaign to commemorate the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women.
While attempting to make a point that sexual offences cases with minors go unreported, the minister explained that girls and boys under the age of 16 cannot consent to sex.
“You may have a situation where the girl, 13 years or older, may have sex with a gentleman much older than her, but it is consensual; she consented. The legal framework will be very harsh on the gentleman so, a lot of times it goes unreported because of that,” he stated further.
Residents have expressed outrage and are sharing excerpts of the recorded interview on all social media sites.
In its statement to the media, Intersect said the Sexual Offences Act of Antigua and Barbuda makes it clear and attaches a penalty of a maximum of 30 years imprisonment for any man who is found guilty of having unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor.
“What makes the minister’s comments even more sinister is the oversimplification of the phenomenon of grooming and the language used to refer to an abuser as a ‘gentleman’. Grooming a child occurs when an adult abuses their position of trust and befriends a child, establishing an emotional connection with the intention of sexually abusing the child. Often, when a child is groomed, they are under the impression that they are in a loving relationship and this is often the reason why they are unwilling to report their abuser to the police,” the statement continued.
The group also called on the government to not only condemn the statements made by the minister responsible for Social Transformation, but to also educate members of Cabinet about the scourge of grooming and child predation that is rampant in the island in addition to other issues that are apparent in each of the minister’s portfolios.
Earlier on Thursday, the country’s main opposition United Progressive Party (UPP) also condemned the minister for, his “insensitive and flawed, remarks implying that an underaged girl can consent to sex with an adult male”.
Political Leader of the UPP Harold Lovell stated that it was unfortunate and comes at a time when the focus is on getting the public – especially men – to realise that any type of violence against women and girls is wrong.
The UPP’s General Secretary, Senator Shawn Nicholas also claimed that the Gender Affairs minister ought to be fired for his “ignorant and insensitive comments”, which, she said, amount to providing a rationale for raping a minor.
“Under the laws of Antigua & Barbuda, 16 years is the age of consent, and the Minister knows that! Therefore, there can be no explanation or excuse for his statements,” the Senator declared.
The comments on social media from scores of residents were similar after excerpts of the minister’s interview surfaced on a number of different platforms.
It also sparked a response from former Minister of Social Transformation and Gender Affairs Samantha Marshall.
In a message posted on her official social media page, the now Agriculture Minister, reminded the nation that under the laws of Antigua and Barbuda, a person under the age of 16 cannot give consent.
Marshall said the minimum age of consent was established to protect girls and boys from abuse and sexual exploitation and to ensure that they realize their fullest potential in a safe society.
She noted further, “Consent cannot be given by anyone underage, intoxicated, or incapacitated by drugs or alcohol, or asleep or unconscious. Any form of sexual activity with a person under these circumstances is considered rape and is criminally sanctioned”.
Minister Marshall added that locals should continue to raise awareness, debunk myths, and share credible information and data to protect the most vulnerable.
Meanwhile, in a press statement issued late yesterday, Minister Jonas said he is “underscoring the fact that in Antigua and Barbuda, a 13-year old is NOT at the Age of Consent for sexual relations which, according to law, is 16 years”.
The minister believes that this public declaration is necessary to ensure that no child or adult is of a mistaken view. A slip of the tongue during an unscripted statement, wrongly portrays the minister as misstating the law.
He also remarked that he would not wish for any citizen or resident of Antigua and Barbuda to confuse the legal age of consent with a personal yes to sex. “No child under the age of 16 years can grant ‘consent. The laws of Antigua and Barbuda are very clear and the Ministry of Social Transformation stands firm in its work to uphold those laws,” the statement read.