By Leow Si Wan
IT IS a sign of the times: More girls aged below 14 are having sex.
The police have now tabbed this as a worrying crime issue, and are trying to keep a lid on the problem.
Crime statistics issued yesterday for the first half of the year showed that the number of statutory rape cases involving girls under 14 jumped more than 70 per cent, to 37 cases, compared with 21 in the same period last year.
Consensual sex was often at the heart of the problem. Many of the girls had sex with casual friends and boyfriends, most of whom were about the same age.
But when the girls' parents, or in some cases, teachers, found out, they were determined that action be taken, and reported the cases to the police.
When the cases went to court, a variety of punishments was dished out. If the culprits were youngsters, they were fined, sent for reformative training, given probation or even jailed, said Mr Patrick Tan, a lawyer in private practice.
In one case involving a 19-year-old youth and a 12-year-old girl, the youth was fined $8,000.
But if older men were involved, more severe sentences were handed down. For instance, one 32-year-old man who had sex with a 12-year-old girl he met through a friend was jailed for seven years and ordered to be caned 18 times.
The girls involved in such cases were not punished, even if they initiated the sex, lawyers said. But they were sometimes counselled or sent to homes.
But beyond landing those involved in trouble with the law, teen sex also caused other problems.
Many such trysts led to unwanted pregnancies, abortions and a rise in the number of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and HIV cases.
Last year, 787 teens caught STIs, more than three times the 238 in 2002. For HIV, the figure rose from one in 2002 to nine in 2007. The total number of teenage abortions last year was 1,289.
Yesterday, police said the increase in statutory rape offences was linked to wider societal trends, and they were working with various ministries, including the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports, to come up with programmes to educate youths on the legal and social consequences of underage sex.
Last year, for instance, police delivered two talks in collaboration with the Education Ministry's Guidance Branch, which supports schools in the social-emotional development of students. The talks were targeted at equipping trainee teachers with the skills to teach sex education.
In their statement yesterday, police called on parents, schools and others to play a role in combating such crimes.
'Care should be taken by families to pay attention to the activities of their younger members, as most of the perpetrators in such cases were known to the victims,' the statement said.
Counsellors contacted yesterday said they were loathe to solely blame men for what is happening, although they were the ones being punished.
The fault, they said, was with changing societal norms and values.
Said the chief executive officer of voluntary welfare organisation Ain Society, Mr Md Yusof Ismail: 'In the past, virginity was an honour. Now, we are becoming like the West in the 1950s and 1960s - if you are still a virgin at 15, you are not attractive.'
Other reasons for the trend included peer pressure, parents who were too busy working to educate their children about the birds and the bees, and greater exposure to sex via the Internet.
For instance, it is very easy for teens to download pornography via the Net, said Pastor Andrew Choo, who runs Andrew and Grace Home, a shelter for troubled teens.
This article was first published in The Straits Times.