South Africa: Decriminalization of adolescent consensual sex

Many thanks to Godfrey Kangaude, LL.M. (UFS), LL.M. (UCLA), Executive Director of the Malawi Law Society and Co-Director of Nyale Institute for Sexual and Reproductive Health Governance, and Phiwo Nyobo, an LL.M. candidate in Sexual and Reproductive Rights in the Centre for Human Rights, Faculty of Law, University of Pretoria, for collaborating on a new African case summary for our forthcoming publication, Legal Grounds III: Reproductive and Sexual Rights in Sub-Saharan African Courts.  

In the first Teddy Bear case of 2013,  a South African High Court proposed decriminalization of adolescent consensual sexual conduct.[1]   Later that year, the Constitutional Court suspended all laws criminalizing adolescent consensual sexual conduct, pending review by Parliament.  As Kangaude notes, this South African decision is “revolutionary because it affirmed adolescents as sexual beings who may engage in consensual sexual conduct, and that this was in certain circumstances normal and even critical for normal and healthy development.” ([2] p.5)

On July 7, 2015, the South African government duly amended its Criminal Law, decriminalizing consensual adolescent sexuality.[3]  The Amendment was welcomed by advocacy groups [4]  and legal specialists.[5]

“South Africa arrived at the Teddy Bear decision using its Constitution and domestic laws. Some African countries [6] [7] still cling to criminal laws that treat consensual sex between adolescents as problematic.  Invariably, this creates conditions that perpetuate the thinking that consensual sexual behaviour amongst adolescents is always harmful. Yet girls and boys still engage in some form of sexual conduct. Since the norms and laws prevent them from getting the necessary support, such as sexual and reproductive health information and services, the consequences include . . . unwanted pregnancy, STIs and unsafe abortions…” ([2] p.5)

The African Commission’s General Comment on Article 14 (1) (d) and (e) of the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa, oblige states to realize wide ranging human rights, not only for adults, but also for adolescents. As Kangaude concludes, “It is only by respecting the rights of the adolescent in matters regarding sexuality that a society will tend towards achieving better sexual and reproductive health, not only for adolescents but for everyone.” ([2] p.6]


[1] Teddy Bear Clinic for Abused Children and Another v Minister of Justice and Constitutional Development and Another, Case No. 73300/10 [2013] ZAGPPHC 1 (North Gauteng High Court, Pretoria).  High Court decisionCase summary by Godfrey Kangaude and Phiwo Nyobo, 2015.

[2] Teddy Bear Clinic for Abused Children and Another v Minister of Justice and Constitutional Development and Another (CCT 12/13) [2013] ZACC 35;  (South Africa: Constitutional Court).   Constitutional Court decision.  Case summary by Godfrey Kangaude and Phiwo Nyobo, 2015.

[3] Criminal Law (Sexual Offences and Related Matters) Amendment Act 5 of 2015 – Government Notice 593 in Government Gazette 38977 dated and commenced July 7, 2015. Amendment Act 5.   Entire Act.

[4] “Towards healthy adolescent sexuality”  by Suhayfa Bhamjee, lecturer in the School of Law at University of Kwazulu-Natal. Legal analysis of draft amendment.

[5] “Revised adolescent sex bill welcomed by Advocacy groups.”  News report.

[6] In our second case summary, p. 5, Kangaude discusses Uganda’s anti-defilement law, which criminalises consensual sex with girls under 18, citing SA Parikh, “‘They arrested me for loving a schoolgirl’: Ethnography, HIV, and a feminist assessmentof the age of consent law as a gender-based structural intervention in Uganda’” (2012) 74 Social Science and Medicine 1774-1782.

[7] For another negative contrast, see the Kenyan decision C.K.W. v. Attorney General & Another [2014] eKLR, Petition 6 of 2013 (High Court of Kenya at Eldoret), which not only upheld criminalisation of adolescent consensual sex, but ignored gender bias in the law.  Decision online.   Case summary by Godfrey Kangaude and Mobby Rusere.

[8] For further discussion of the legal, ethical and reproductive health issues , see Godfrey Kangaude, “Enhancing the Role of Health Professionals in the Advancement of Adolescent Sexual Health and Rights in Africa” (2016). International Journal of Gynecology and Obstetrics 132 (2016) 105-108.  Abstract and Article.

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