The discussion around men being able to have sexual relations with underaged people did not crop up just in the 21st century, the age of consent argument predates modern society.
In late 19th century America, legislators who were against the age of consent being raised expressed sympathy for hypothetical men who would be tricked into marriage by conniving girls who consented to sex and then later threatened to press charges. Historically, the position of English common law dating back to the 1500s on the age of consent was that a person under age 7 lacked the mental ability to consent to marriage, but that between age 7 and puberty, there could be consent to marry but not consummation, i.e sex.
Common law countries (Former British colonies) like America and Nigeria adopted this position in their laws until future revisions were made. In America, these revisions came, like most rights, with struggle. American lawmakers selected 10 or 12 as the age of consent to coincide with the onset of puberty. The belief was that once a girl menstruated, she was ready to have sex. Men who were accused of raping girls as young as 7 years old could say “she consented” to avoid prosecution.
The American age-of-consent campaigns of the 1880s and 1890s marked a turning point in women’s rights advocacy and it ushered in an age of a revolutionary quest for women’s rights that ultimately culminated in suffrage. The first bill ever proposed by a female legislator in America came from Colorado state representative Carrie Clyde Holly in January 1895. The law she intended to pass sought to raise the age of consent to 21, an incredibly ambitious step at the time (even though it is evident that even today, many would oppose such a law). As of 1890, the age at which girls could consent to sex was 12 or younger in 38 states and, in Delaware, it was 7.
As a woman who had earned a place in a political sphere where she was outnumbered 9-to-1, Holly used her position to fight for women and children’s rights to bodily autonomy. Purity culture was at its peak in these times and women were not expected to even think about sex, talk less of running entire campaigns with sex as a subject matter and so, of course, it was an uphill battle. By 1900, 32 states had raised the age to between 14 and 18.
In Nigeria, the law does not explicitly define an age of consent, however, the 2003 Child Rights Act defines a child as anyone under the age of 18. It further states that “where a person is charged with an offence (of unlawful sexual relations with a child) under this section (31 of the same act), it is immaterial that the offender believed the person to be of or above the age of eighteen years.”
However, child marriage and the violation of age of consent laws are commonplace here with even prominent members of society and government officials marrying children sans repercussion.
In 2013, Senator Sani Ahmed Yerima married a 13-year-old girl and was a proud advocate of child marriage. Age of consent laws around the world are in dire need of reform as several states still permit marriage to literal children. It is the duty of the state and its legislators to ensure that the law protects its citizens, particularly the vulnerable, like children from predatory people and prescribes appropriately in the event that their rights are violated.