NEW DELHI: The Union Cabinet on Thursday cleared a Bill that seeks to raise the age of legal sex from 16 to 18, provoking sharp criticism from child rights activists, who called it a regressive step.
The Protection of Children against Sexual Offences Bill, 2011, says sex under the age of 18 – even if consensual – would be deemed as statutory rape and an offence that would be tried under the Juvenile Justice Act carrying a maximum punishment of three years imprisonment.
Activists are taken aback by the move as it comes at a time when sexual mores have become easier and the global trend has been one of puberty coming at an earlier age. The Bill, which sailed smoothly at the meeting, was slammed by activists and legal experts who said it was out of tune with the reality of sex ceasing to be taboo among youth.
The legislation makes India an exception among democracies that have stuck to 16 years as the age for legal sex.
While the UK has 16 as its age of consent, Canada and the US follow a nuanced approach exempting minors of the same age or close-in-age from punishment.
The Bill has dropped the term “age of consent”, which, according to many, allowed for consensual sex among individuals aged 16 and above.
The change was prompted by a controversial recommendation by Parliament’s standing committee on HRD. The panel said that the “age of consent” provision was inconsistent with the Indian Penal Code and the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act both of which recognize 18 as the legal age for sex, and asked for the removal of discrepancy. The committee, in other words, by inference deemed that sex outside marriage was undesirable – again a position that is held to be retrograde.
This move in the name of uniformity has activists and experts up in arms. Former Law Commission member Kirti Singh criticized it saying that this would amount to “criminalizing” sex between young people. “The remedy to young people indulging in sexual activity is not by clamping down through law and enforcement. This will have a negative impact on the false cases of rape, kidnapping and honour killing.”
Bharti Ali of HAQ: Centre for Child Rights was equally scathing. She termed it a “ridiculous” amendment and a statement on the Indian attitude towards sex. “We don’t want to talk about sex with our children and when they want to explore, we put them behind bars. This will only be misused by police and sends a wrong signal to children,” she added.