The Union Cabinet on Thursday reportedly cleared the anti-rape bill by agreeing to replace the word “sexual assault” with “rape” and reducing the age of consent from 18 to 16 years. What would be its implications? And, is it acceptable to the traditional Hyderabadi parents? It seems not.
The Protection of Children against Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act defines anyone under the age of 18 as minors and as such, activists and worried parents wonder how could the Centre rush through a decision like this. Essentially, the issue boils down to one question: Is a 16-year-old a child? Or is he/she competent enough to make a mature decision?
“How can we enforce stricter anti-rape measures when we are ourselves giving kids the right to decide at 16? This is only going to act against the kids, as they are really innocent and vulnerable and tend to give in on being threatened,” argues PVN Raju, an electrical engineer at L&T, and a father of two daughters. His 15-year-old daughter, a Class X student, is well aware of the Centre’s move and is quite cool about it
“I have a lot of friends who have boyfriends right from Class VIII. I know about all the stuff they do and also am aware of how they get distracted during school hours. Lowering the age of consent to 16 perhaps will not have an affect on them. This might just give them an extra advantage or liberty,” she opines.
Those in favour of the move argue that it is justified given the increased level of sexual awareness and activity among those aged between 16 and 18.
Feminist poet and activist Meena Kandasamy, who has been following the issue, begs to differ. “If it is consensual sex between teenagers that the State wants to approve, they don’t have to legitimize it through a law. Consensual sex has hardly formed the basis for any complaint! Either criminalizing or infantilizing woman seems to be a favourite pastime of the state apparatus--which is why they are advertising this “lowering of the age of consent” not as a progressive step forward or as a society that has come to terms with its sexuality, but as something to prevent the charge of “statutory rape” that teenage girls may press upon someone,” she points out.
“Take the Suryanelli rape case. It was a 16-year-old minor. She was raped by 42 men over a 40-day period after her abduction. At least under earlier laws, it would be considered a clear case of ‘rape’. If a case like that were to happen today, it would be argued that it was consensual sex and the accused would plead innocent. We should not deny young people their sexuality. At the same time, the legal ramifications of such a move have to be weighed,” she explains.
Vasanth Kannabiran, co-founder of Asmita, a women’s rights organisation, gives a balanced view. “The fact is that girls do have consensual sex before 16. So, while they should not be penalised, it should not be used to protect powerful rapists or sexual offenders or marital rape which is not even recognised. The crux of the issue is who gains and who gets trapped,” she observes.
If this is the view of activists, students put it in perspective as they have their ears to the ground. A Class X student from Chinmaya says in a matter-of-fact manner that nobody actually waits till 16 to have sex. “A lot of my friends do it when they are in school. If not anything intense, a lot of them would have already made out!” she shares.
But clearly, this issue is set to rattle parents. A worried parent Hemanth Kumar, an entrepreneur, says, “It is not a right move. India is still a conservative country. More women will be exploited if the age bar is reduced and at the same time, it sends a strong message of pre-marital sex. I think at 16 girls and boys are not mature enough to decide if they want to have sex. This will definitely give more scope for offenses," he says and further adds that, "We should not approve this, because it is not just kids between 16 and 18 who are having sex, there are fathers who are raping their daughters, and they can easily threaten young girls into submission,” he argues forcefully.
One has to wait and see if this provision in the bill sees a meaningful debate in Parliament. Right now, it is generating a heated debate among parents.