Tuesday 7 February 2023

Improper Relationships: When Age Does Matter

Enacted in 2017, Law 9406 saw an increase in complaints and few sentences

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7 February 2023 - At The Banks - BCCR

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QCOSTARICA – “I tell young girls to educate themselves on the law and the issue of improper relationships. No woman deserves to go through what I or others have gone through. I tell them to be careful who they associate with. Age does matter. A person older than one completely dominates her,” Paola, 18, who lived in an improper relationship when she was a minor with an adult, told Revista Dominical in an interview.

Today she understands that she did not deserve to go through all that she experienced in “a relationship” with a man nine years older when she was barely 15.

Paola speaks thinking of minors, to whom she assures them that this type of relationship with adults are not positive at all.

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The real identities of Paola and the people who gave her testimony for this report will be protected, so fictitious names are used.

“Improper relationships are unequal and power relationships between an adult person and an adolescent are inconvenient or harmful for minors because they violate their period and process of growth and development. Minors are forced to undergo processes for which they are not prepared and that could be a threat to their physical, psychological and sexual integrity, and prevent the comprehensive development to which they are entitled,” details the Patronato Nacional de la Infancia (PANI) – National Board of Childhood.

Paola, Fabiola, Melissa, Camila, Ariana and Felipe experienced this type of relationship when they were not of legal age. In all their cases, the adult with whom they had the bond incurred in authoritarianism, mistreatment, humiliation and even abuse.

An improper relationship is not a relationship because there is no equality. Photo: Courtesy UNFPA

In this article, in addition to presenting their stories, we will learn what progress has been made in the application of the Ley de relaciones impropias (Improper Relationships Law) in Costa Rica, we will present the story of Amelia, an adolescent who came to the Paniamor Foundation (with the support of other institutions). to seek reform of existing legislation to protect minors, and we will provide you with telephone numbers that you can call for advice on the subject.

Before continuing, it is important to have some clear concepts:

What is the law of improper relationships?

On January 13, 2017, Law 9406 came into force “Strengthening the legal protection of girls and adolescent women in situations of gender violence associated with abusive relationships, reform of the Penal Code, Family Code, Organic Law TSE and Civil Registry, and Civil Code”, known as the Improper Relations Law (although its title is associated only with women, this legislation protects women and men indistinctly).

What does this law prohibit and punish?

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The PANI explains that this law reformed the articles of the Family Code and prohibited marriage with persons under 18 (previously it was allowed to marry from the age of 15 if it had the authorization of the minor’s parents). In addition, it modified the Criminal Code, punishing with a prison sentence whoever has carnal access orally, anal or vaginally with a minor, provided that it does not constitute a crime of rape, in the following cases:

  • 3 to 6 years in prison when the victim is older than 13 and younger than 15, and the perpetrator is 5 or more years older.
  • 2 to 3 years in prison when the victim is older than 15 and younger than 18, and the perpetrator is 7 or more years older.
  • 4 to 10 years in prison, provided that the perpetrator has in relation to the victim the condition of ascendant, uncle, aunt, brother or sister, cousin or cousin by consanguinity or affinity, is a guardian or guardian or is in a position of trust or authority with respect to the victim or his family, whether or not he is related.


When Paola turned 15, the improper relations law had already been in force for two years. Neither she, nor her mother, nor anyone around her knew it.

Paola celebrated her birthday in a restaurant where her closest friends came. She remembers that at that time in her home there was no budget to hold a bigger party: the important thing was to celebrate. She recalls that on that day she met a man who her friend brought to her place.

Improper relationships “are unequal and power relationships between an adult person and an adolescent person, which are inconvenient or harmful to minors.” Photo: ShutterStock

She does not recall if she interacted with the man at the celebration, but seeing the photos that were taken that day she noticed that he was always close to her. Days later, he started sending her messages telling her “how pretty she was” and inviting her to different activities.

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She saw him as a friend.

He continued to insist that they go out, he did not stop persisting and she, Paola agreed to see him one more time. “That day he was super affectionate,” mentions the girl, now 18 years old.

After a pause, she continues: “What I didn’t know is that he had a horrible past: he has always liked underage girls 12, 14 and 15 years old. At that time we were just friends. Later I found out that he had an ex-girlfriend, also a minor, who always wanted to return. When she met him he was 24 years old, nine years older than her.

Several months passed in which Paola continued to see him as a friend. One day he proposed “that they be boyfriends” and she said yes.

They were just beginning what this young woman now recognizes as an improper relationship when the adult told Paola that he wanted to be a father. She said no, that she was barely 15 years old. Still, on one occasion and without her consent, he tried to get her pregnant. I do not pass.

“He then convinced me and I got pregnant. Time passed. When I took the pregnancy test she was super happy. She did not want to be a mother because she was young, but pregnant she was not going to abort. This really happened out of sheer pressure. I called him to tell him the news but he didn’t answer. I published (on social media) that I was going to be a mother and when he saw, he told me: ‘delete that crap, in case you don’t know, not all babies are born’. At that time (the man) had gotten back with his ex-girlfriend and he told me not to tell anyone about my pregnancy. I hid it for four months.”

In her house, Paola did not have any support, so she lived in silence. It was not until she attended prenatal control (her pregnancy was high risk for being a teenager) that the medical center workers made her see that she was in an improper relationship.

“That time they told me if my mother wanted to report my baby’s father for being with me as a minor. The Caja Costarricense de Seguro Social filed the complaint but I never accused him because I loved him, that’s why I protected him, I didn’t understand what was happening at that time. I did not report it and that is why he continued to take advantage of it, humiliating me,” Paola said.

According to data from the Instituto Nacional de Estadísticas y Censos (INEC) – National Institute of Statistics and Censuses, in 2021, 197 adolescents under the age of 15 gave birth and 4,850, aged between 15 and 19, became mothers.

Data from the same year with reference to underage men becoming fathers there are none: the information available is that in 2017 there were 325 births registered by fathers under 20 years of age.

We cite this information because institutions that watch over the well-being of children and adolescents infer that in many cases, as in Paola’s, babies born to teenage mothers are generally the result of an improper relationship.

In September 2019, Paniamor supported that possibility with numbers. The foundation reported that in 2018 of the 68,479 births that occurred, “only the age of 36,957 of the men who fathered the newborns was recorded, leaving 31,522 of the cases unregistered, 46.02%, according to INEC data.” They also reported that in 2018 “9,531 girls and adolescents under the age of 19 gave birth, while the number of adolescent parents for that same year was only 965 cases.”

To protect Paola’s identity, everything that happened with the adult was not given too much detail, however, she did not continue with the relationship and today she is a Paniamor youth promoter. She is an empowered woman and mother; She studies and always raises her voice so that other adolescents do not suffer what she experienced.

“Age does matter,” she stressed during an interview in which we were accompanied by Erika Céspedes Oviedo, a psychologist and social manager at Paniamor, and Fabiola, 20, who did not experience an improper relationship, but narrated her experience being harassed at 17 by a 40-year-old teacher.

Fabiola is the face and voice of the girls who have received the message of how “harmful an improper relationship is for a minor.” For this reason, from the beginning, she detected the red flags that warned her that an older man would never be “good” for her.

“I was 17 years old when I met a math teacher. We became friends out of sheer cordiality. One day she was at school and had a topic that I did not understand. He told me that I should go to his house and that he would explain it to me. I saw it as very normal. I go to the house, he explains it to me but he kept looking at me, approached me and just told me bonita (beautiful).

“I continued in the class but ended up saying that I wanted to leave. Through messages, he kept saying he wanted to kiss me. I had never talked to someone more than two years older, I told him and he replied that he helped me and that he had not charged me. I had a feeling of obligation and kept talking to him. He insisted and I was afraid to run into him alone,” she recalled.

Fabiola, invaded by fears, decided to cut off any type of communication. She worked it out on her own: she was afraid of being judged.

“I chose to block it. I didn’t find any other way. I felt guilty, but I did not get carried away with the feeling of guilt that was unjustified. He said dirty things to me. He told me terrible things. I kept thinking that I hadn’t done anything to make him say those things to me.

“I never reported him. My mom never knew. I was afraid that he would tell me that this happened to me for going to a house of an adult.”

After that experience and everything she has learned in Paniamor, she shared a message: “It is common to say that for love there is no age and there is. It is not normal for an older man to notice an underage person. I learned that one is not alone and their attitudes are not one’s fault,” she added.

Improper relationships “force the minor to experience processes for which they are not prepared and that could be a threat to their physical, psychological and sexual integrity, and prevent the comprehensive development to which they are entitled.” Photo: ShutterStock


Talking about improper relationships is addressing a topic that has historically been normalized.

Have you heard about how idealized it is to have a Sugar Daddy (a man older than his partner who, in exchange for a romantic and sexual relationship, provides money and goods to a much smaller person)? It is also done in a very natural way.

PANI psychologist, Carol Guzmán, referred to the issue of improper relationships after the implementation of the law and how complex it is sometimes to work to combat it because of how naturalized it is.

“The struggle has been awareness, to see the problem that exists in an improper relationship. It is difficult to explain to people the symbolism of being in an unequal relationship, where there is a person with more purchasing power, more experience and a series of advantages over the minor person and that these relationships make the minor person enter a circle of inequality. It is one of the areas in which we have been working inter-institutionally (with the National Institute for Women, the Costa Rican Social Security Fund, among others) in an awareness and sensitization strategy,” said Guzmán.

Without being aware of the Improper Relationships Law, Doña Emilia knew that it was not right for a 22-year-old man to have impregnated her 14-year-old daughter, Melissa. She went to the PANI seeking advice.

Despite the fact that people close to her told her that if she talked about what the adult was going through, “he would take away her daughter’s financial aid,” she knew it was the right thing to do.

What happened with Emilia and Melissa was narrated by Valeria Elizondo, the Adolescent Mother Program of the PANI psychologist, who said that the intervention that was carried out was to empower the mother to denounce the adult who impregnated her daughter after having a relationship with the teenager, of which the mother, apparently, had no knowledge.

“A mother called in crisis seeking emotional support and professional advice on how to act in the situation.

“Her 14-year-old daughter tells her at that time (2021) that she is pregnant by a 22-year-old person. Mom is confused, she doesn’t know what to do, she doesn’t know the Law of Improper Relationships. She knows that the man is older but does not know the law.

“There were situations that could also manipulate the mother; She had no knowledge of the matter, there were people who told her that the man was helping the teenage mother. She comments that many people advised her not to report the situation because then he would get angry and would not help them financially and that her girl would be harmed,” said the specialist, who protected the real identities of the mother and her daughter.

After advising her, the lady filed the complaint. “Her relationship with this apparently adult person continued because the girl ran away or texted him. There was a lot of accompaniment with her on the issue of pregnancy, childbirth, motherhood and so that she understood the relationship of inequality,” she added, commenting that the adult also exerted psychological aggression on the adolescent.

The PANI official does not know if the complaint was successful.

Psychologist Carol Guzmán, one of the professionals in charge of the Adolescent Mother Program of the PANI, explained that it is common for minors not to perceive themselves as victims and that is why they often do not report or do not testify against the adult with whom they maintained the improper relationship.

Between January and October 2021, 1,424 complaints were received for improper relationships at the PANI-911 and 1147 lines.

Guzmán mentioned that sometimes the complaints do not advance in the judicial process, for different reasons.

“Many complaints do not prosper because in order for them to proceed criminally, there must be evidence and when the minor does not perceive herself as a victim, but as a person in love, she does not provide the information required as evidence. It is also important to take into account that, when denouncing, you should try to give yourself all the complete information and contact details,” added psychologist Carol Guzmán.

“For this reason, the field of action in which the problem is addressed is that of awareness and empowerment of minors, as a complement to the attention to complaints,” she said.

The psychologist reiterates the importance of seeking advice and reporting cases of improper relationships. On the other side of the phone, on the PANI lines, they will be attended by a specialist in psychology and the idea is that adolescents do not feel afraid to call believing that they are going to be judged or punished. The lines are there so that they and their families can get advice on this and other issues.

“Any underage person can call to consult, not necessarily to report, but to ask questions and get advice.

“For PANI it is very important that young people, boys and girls, know that they have a place to call, with whom to talk and where to turn. Anyone can make use of these consultation services,” said the psychologist.

Improper relationships affect the life and development of the minor in various ways. Leaving or falling behind with studies, separation from family and friends, sexually transmitted diseases, among others, are part of the damage. Photo: Shutterstock

The law in numbers

Since the implementation of the Improper Relationships Law, the complaints for this crime have been increasing, with the exception of the year 2020 when the pandemic began and the figure rather fell.

In 2017, when the law was approved, the Public Ministry and the OIJ received 2,119 complaints for the alleged crime of improper relationships.

In 2018, the complaints amounted to 4,033; for 2019, 4,110 were received and the most recent data provided by the prosecutor indicates that in 2020 the complaints decreased to 2,800.

It must be remembered that this law applies regardless of the gender of the minor. Although there are no specific data, Andrea Briones commented that there have been reports of alleged improper relationships in which the minor who is being violated in the unequal relationship is a male.

The official also shared data related to the convictions of adults guilty of having improper relationships with adolescents.

In 2018, 27 people were convicted of this crime and 20 were acquitted.

By 2019, convictions reached 34 and the acquitted reached 21.

And the 2020 data indicates that there were 14 convicted and 14 acquittals.

The numbers show a gap between the number of complaints and sentences.

Need more information?

These are the lines available to seek advice, clarify doubts and/or report:

  • Teen mother line: 800-2-26-26-26. There, psychologists will answer you, who clarify doubts, provide accompaniment and guidance.
  • Line 1147: this is for minors in general.
  • 8989-1147: WhatsApp available for advice and complaints.

Likewise, they can communicate through the PANI social networks and complaints can be filed by calling 9-1-1 or going to the OIJ.

The article “Relaciones impropias: Cuando la edad sí importa” by Fernanda Matarrita Chaves published in Revista Dominical was translated and adapted by the Q. Read the original article (in Spanish) here.

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