Authors: Zaynab Essack, A Strode
Until recently, any sex or sexual activity with a person under the age of 16 was criminalised, regardless of consent. All such incidents were considered criminal offences and needed to be reported to the police. This paper explores the knowledge, practices and perspectives of seventeen social workers in KwaZulu-Natal in relation to their mandatory reporting responsibilities on consensual underage sex. All social workers were clear about their reporting responsibilities regarding child abuse and non-consensual underage sex. However, findings suggest that social workers were less clear on the exact circumstances in which they ought to report consensual underage sex. Most participants indicated that they would make individual assessments about when to report underage consensual sex and sexual activity. Such decisions would be influenced by structural factors, the personal circumstances of affected children and the availability of other interventions to address early sexual activity. This study has shown that social workers are struggling to comply with mandatory reporting responsibilities involving underage consensual sex. Most social workers approach reporting of consensual sex and sexual activity differently to other reporting responsibilities and use a case-by-case approach. Given these findings, it is argued that parliament should consider reforming mandatory reporting provisions so that there is a distinction between the obligation to report consensual and non-consensual sexual offences against children. The mandatory obligation to report non-consensual sexual offences against children should remain but the obligation to report consensual sex or sexual activity should be discretionary and depend on the facts of each case.