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An estimated 4-minute read

It's not law's business to see who you sleep with! But It is law's duty to protect children against Rape and Abuse

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In response to http://laworlogic.wordpress.com/2012/10/06/the-age-of-consent/ and http://www.legallyindia.com/Blogs/Entry/is-it-laws-business-to-see-who-i-sleep-with

In a 2007 study conducted by Ministry of Women and Child development, it was found that more than 53 % of children in India faced one or more forms of sexual abuse. In 50 %of these cases the abuser was the person whom the child trusted.

In 2009 there were approximately 21000 reported cases of rapes in India, out of these nearly 14 % (i.e. 3000) were committed against the girls between the age of 14 and 18.

Few months back, president of India gave his assent to the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2011. The Act was long overdue as the  Indian Penal Code drafted in 1860 had an extremely narrow definition of rape and other sexual offences leaving many forms of sexual crimes outside the purview of criminal prosecution. The bill was also needed as the term 'unnatural sex' in the IPC put both sexual abuse of boys (paedophilia) and sex between consenting adults on the same level.  The Act is also important as it covers non-penetrative sexual abuse against girls and sexual crimes against boys which weren't covered under the provisions of IPC or other Acts.

Though the bill was widely appreciated by the Civil Society for widening the ambit of protection offered to children against various kinds of sexual offences and also for bringing in new procedures like special courts and stipulated time frame for disposal of cases but the government faced a lot of flak for increasing the Age of Consent for consensual sex from 16 to 18 years.

Interestingly the age of consent in India has only increased for the past 150 years and has never gone down. In 1860, the age of consent was 10 years. In 1896 it was increased to 12 years after the rape of a 11 year old girl. During the Independence struggle, more information about adverse effect of young pregnancies led to the increase in this age  to 14 years. In 1949, this age was raised to 15 years and later to 16 years and now it is 18.

The government was forced to change the age because there are five crore children in the age band of 16 to 18 years of age. If the government decided to keep the consent option than these children would be denied a much required protection against the criminal minded adults. If sex with a 17 year old is not regarded as statutory rape then a Criminal would rape a child and then plead consent and shift the whole burden of proof on the minor to prove the absence of any express or implied consent. It would be nothing less than torture for a minor to face the defence counsel and answer questions regarding consent even after going through the trauma of rape.

The other contention raised by some people is about a girl aged 17 having consensual sex with her boyfriend aged 19 - Why the law needs to interfere in such cases? Now the people need to understand that the law is not going to interfere unless the girl walks into to police station and files a complaint of rape and even if it happens the case goes to a special court where the judge is specially sanitized to deal with these cases in best interest of both the parties.

The most fierce criticism government faced is due to the threat of misuse of the Act by disgruntled parents against boys who elope with their daughters. These kind of situations generally arise when a girl of high caste falls in love with a boy of lower caste or when a Hindu girl  runs away with a Muslim boy. The problem here is with the stratification in the society and the inherent biases against the  lower castes and minority religion and not with the law.

The purpose of the new Act and the consequent change is the Age of Consent is to deal with cases of sexual crime and stop the abuse of children on the hands of people who have the authority to take care of them. The purpose is not to provide a new weapon to unsatisfied parents and job-less khap panchayats. Hence, the law should not be criticized on the assumption that one section of the society may misuse its provisions.

Many people have also said that this change would put India in the same bracket with backward non-liberal countries like Uganda, Rwanda and Malaysia. Firstly, it is more important for us to protect our children against abuse than to worry about how liberal we look. Secondly, people argue that, children are influenced by western culture and are more prone to engage in sexual behaviour early in life. If children are influenced by western culture then this amendment is also influenced by US as 11 states in America which are considered most advanced and liberal including California and Florida have 18 years as age of consent and not 16.

There are few other grounds on which this change was defended by various people including population control and control on teen pregnancies and abortion but in  my opinion saving young victims from a hostile trial and giving them reasonable protection is a sufficient ground for the amendment.

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