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Child sexual abuse is nowadays outlawed in almost all countries, generally with severe criminal penalties, including in some jurisdictions, life imprisonment or capital punishment. An adult's sexual intercourse with a minor below the legal age of consent is defined as statutory rape, based on the principle that an abusing adult is a criminal deviant who takes advantage of a minor, who is not capable of consent, and that any apparent consent by a minor could not be considered legal consent.

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) is an international treaty that legally obliges states to protect children's rights. Articles 34 and 35 of the CRC require states to protect children from all forms of sexual exploitation and sexual abuse. This includes outlawing the coercion of a child to perform sexual activity, the prostitution of children, and the exploitation of children in creating pornography. States are also required to prevent the abduction, sale, or trafficking of children. As of November 2008, 193 countries are bound by the CRC, including every member of the United Nations except the United Statesmarker and Somaliamarker.

In the United States

Child sexual abuse has been recognized specifically as a type of child maltreatment in U.S. federal law since the initial Congressional hearings on child abuse in 1973. Child sexual abuse is illegal in every state, as well as under federal law. Among the states, the specifics of child sexual abuse laws vary, but certain features of these laws are common to all states.

The U.S.marker Supreme Courtmarker ruled in Kansas v. Hendricks that a predatory sex offender can be civilly committed upon release from prison. The Supreme Court ruled in Stogner v. California that California's ex post facto law, a retroactive extension of the statute of limitations for sexual offenses committed against minor, is unconstitutional.

The U.S. has also instituted Megan's Law, which requires law enforcement to release information about sex offenders. It is a modification of the Jacob Wetterling Crimes Against Children and Sexually Violent Offender Registration Act, which specifies that information about both sexual offenders and individuals committing crimes against children must be released.

Minors' inability to consent

Between adults, most sexual activity does not constitute a criminal offense, unless one of the adults does not consent to the activity. In contrast, minors are unable to give consent under the law. Indeed, the term "minor" refers to a person who has not yet reached majority, the age at which one may give consent in any legal matter (for example, a minor cannot make a valid contract). Consequently, an adult who engages in sexual activity with a minor commits child sexual abuse.

Many states include in their penal codes a "Romeo and Juliet" exception for cases where sexual activity occurs between a young adult and a minor whose ages are within a few years of each other. This exception typically bars charging the young adult with a sex offense, if the young adult did not use force or coercion on the minor and the minor is a teenager.


Incest is a criminal offense in most states. In the majority of states with incest laws, a perpetrator of intrafamilial child sexual abuse may be prosecuted for incest instead of child sexual abuse offenses. Such crimes are most commonly addressed in family courts, as opposed to criminal courts, although no laws prohibit simultaneous proceedings in both forums. A related perpetrator, if convicted under the state's incest law, will receive a significantly lower penalty for committing the same acts that constitute criminal child sexual abuse in that state. Recognizing this loophole, some states have altered their penal codes to prohibit prosecution of intrafamilial child sexual abuse under the incest statutes. In these states, which include Arkansas, California, Illinois, New York, and North Carolina, all perpetrators of sexual offenses against children are prosecuted under the same laws, without regard to whether they are related to their victims. These states retain their incest laws only for their original purpose: to prohibit sexual activity between those too closely related by blood.

Penalties for child sexual abuse

Penalties for child sexual abuse vary with the specific offenses for which the perpetrator has been convicted. Criminal penalties may include imprisonment, fines, registration as a sex offender, and restrictions on probation and parole. Civil penalties may include liability for damages, injunctions, involuntary commitment, and, for perpetrators related to their victims, loss of custody or parental rights.

During the last three decades many state legislatures have increased prison terms and other penalties for child sex offenders. This trend toward more stringent sentences generally targets those perpetrators who are repeat offenders, who victimize multiple children, or who stood in a position of trust with respect to their victims, such as a guardian, parent, pastor, or teacher. In Colorado, lawmakers proposed a new law allowing the death penalty for repeat offenders. However, the bill was rejected by the state senate. Social workers argued that in intra-familial abuse, the victims could be intimidated by their abuser into thinking their family member would be killed if they reported the abuse.

Kennedy v. Louisiana

The USA Supreme Court in a 5-4 judgment penned by Justice Anthony Kennedy on June 25, 2008, prohibited executions of accused convicted of child rape: "the death penalty is not a proportional punishment for the rape of a child, despite the horrendous nature of the crime." Kennedy reserved capital punishment only "for crimes that involve a victim's death." In this Louisianamarker case, Patrick Kennedy raped his 8-year-old stepdaughter, resulting into serious injuries which required surgery. 44 states prohibit death penalty for any kind of rape, but Louisiana and 4 other states permit it for child rape — Montana, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Texas. There's disagreement over the status of a Georgia law permitting execution for child rape, but Justice Kennedy ruled it was still in force. The court, thus declared unconstitutional the Louisiana statute (La. Stat. Ann. §14:42, West 1997 and Supp. 1998): "the Eighth Amendment bars Louisiana from imposing the death penalty for the rape of a child where the crime did not result, and was not intended to result, in the victim’s death."

Opponents have criticized the decision, noting an admission by the Justice Department that they had failed to note that the US Congress had made child rape a capital offence under military law as recently as 2006, which has been noted as contradicting the "evolving standards of decency" justification for the decision.

In South Africa

In 1995, South Africa ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and committed to a range of obligations aimed at establishing and protecting the rights of children. The Child Care Act, (74 of 1983) and the Child Care Amendment Act, (86 of 1991; 13 of 1999) make sexual abuse of children a criminal offense.

In the United Kingdom

The United Kingdom rewrote its criminal code in the Sexual Offences Act of 2003. This Act includes definitions and penalties for child sexual abuse offences, and (so far as relating to offences) applies to Englandmarker and Walesmarker and Northern Irelandmarker. The Scottish Law Commission published its review of rape and sexual offences in December 2007, which includes a similar consolidation and codification of child sexual abuse offences in Scotland.

In Zambia

A recent June 30, 2008 landmark decision by judge, Philip Musonda, of the Zambian High Court gave a minor girl-student $45million Zambian Kwacha in awards after she brought her teacher to court for statutory rape. This is the first case of its kind for a minor to win against a person of authority in the nation of Zambia.

Countries with Islamic law

Laws regarding sexual relations and marriage vary among nations with Islamic influenced systems of law. By religious doctrine, sex outside of marriage ("zina") is strictly forbidden regardless of any person's age. Therefore, many relevant laws pertain specifically to the age at which a woman may marry.

The marriageable age according to Islamic texts varies in interpretation by different scholars and jurists. Some hold that a woman may marry at the age of 6 but that it must not be consummated until age 9 (after of one of the traditions of Aisha). Other hold that the girl must be post-pubertal, some jurists even clarifying this as the age of 15.

As a result of these varied interpretations, enumerated laws in such nations likewise vary a great deal. In Bangladeshmarker and Malaysiamarker, the legal age is 18. In Pakistanmarker, it is 16. Sri Lankamarker is one of the lowest, with age 12.

Proper enforcement can often be a more pressing issue. In Yemenmarker, the law does not define child abuse and Saudi Arabiamarker does not keep any national statistics on the phenomenon. According to the US Department of State, in Iranmarker, such "abuse was largely regarded as a private, family matter"..


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