A coalition of social services agencies has called for restorative justice in cases where young people are convicted of sexual offences.
The Inter-Agency Committee for Children and Families said people convicted of sexual offences, particularly those aged under 18, needed to understand the harm they caused their victims and help to tackle the causes of the behaviour to prevent further offending.
Kelly Hunt, executive director of the Coalition for the Protection of Children, said: “The need for continued preventive education is clear as inappropriate touching between peers and the sexual exploitation of young people remains an issue heavily impacting our youth.
“Children must be taught from a young age the empowering message that it is their body and no one has a right to violate that.”
Ms Hunt added that young people needed to have a trusted adult they can speak to who can provide a sympathetic ear.
She said: “With so many mixed messages and the significant role peers and social media plays, adolescents need guidance and support from mentors who have their best interest at hand.
“A community-wide effort to understand the negative impact having sex at a young age can have on a person’s life would help address the false perception that it’s simply expected behaviour from teenagers.”
Debi Ray Rivers, the founder of Scars, an anti-child abuse charity, said there was no simple answer to the complex problem of sexual abuse.
She added: “At an early age, we have to build self-esteem in children, so that they believe that they are worthy and that their bodies are beautiful, sacred and special.
“Being loved and accepted or feeling important, does not mean that they have to have sex. There is more to sex, physically and emotionally, that the actual act of sex.”
Ms Rivers said no one should feel bullied or pressured into having sex.
She added: “When it comes to teenagers, they need to be taught how to control their feelings and high hormone levels and also by having role models around them who display this positive behaviour.”