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Age of descent
On the face of it, the new law fixing the age of consent at 18 is in keeping with a pattern of incremental increase, starting way back in 1860. That was the year in which the age of consent was introduced in India, as part of the rape provision in the Indian Penal Code (IPC). Remarkably, it was as low as 10 - an age when the bodies of girls would not even have developed enough to have sex. But then, for those times 10 was a reasonable limit for statutory rape as a lot of girls were married off at an even younger age.
The impetus for raising the age of consent came within three decades following the outrage over the death of child bride Phulmonee as a result of "consensual" sex with her 35-year-old husband. In a calibrated move, the colonial government increased the age of consent to 12. It carried out two more such incremental hikes: the age of consent was increased to 14 in 1925 before it stabilised at 16 in 1940.
On the whole, the three increments in the age of consent from 10 to 16 helped balance societal interests with natural instincts of adolescents. The balance struck at 16 served well for generations of Indians for over seven decades. The increment to 18 however tilts the balance in favour of conservative opinion, in a setback to India's liberal credentials.
The cultural arguments cited at the all-party meeting on Monday forcing the government to increase the age of consent from 16 to 18 are reminiscent of the resistance faced by the first increment in 1891. The conservatives led then by no less than Bal Gangadhar Tilak attacked the increase in the age of consent from 10 to 12 as a "dangerous precedent" and "interference with Hinduism".
The latest increment is actually the culmination of a process set in motion in December 2011 by a parliamentary standing committee headed by Oscar Fernandes. The standing committee gave its report then on a special enactment called the protection of children from sexual offences (PCSO) Bill. In an entirely gratuitous move, the standing committee recommended that the Bill should also increase the age of consent from 16 to 18. This was despite an admission in the report that the ministry of women and child development had opposed the idea of tinkering with the age of consent. Other than seeking parity between the age of consent and marriageable age, the standing committee offered no justification for depriving girls in the age bracket of 16 to 18 of their longentrenched right to engage in consensual sex.
The conservative opinion, however, found a potent issue in the standing committee, forcing the government to enhance the age of consent to 18 in the PCSO Bill passed in the Budget session of 2012.
Inevitably, the government was then confronted with the demand to make a corresponding change in IPC. But the outrage over the Nirbhaya gang rape came in the way as feminist groups lobbied with the government to keep the age of consent at 16. Eventually, the conservatives trumped the liberals when the all-party meeting on March 18 scuttled the Cabinet's decision to roll back the age of consent to 16.
Thanks to the hardening of the law on teenage sex, India will be out of whack with a global trend. While the age of consent across the world ranges from 13 to 18, the bulk of the countries, particularly in the West, have it at 16. These include Britain, Norway, Canada, Switzerland, Israel, Russia, South Africa and a majority of the states of the US.
By criminalising consensual sex with any person below 18, India has chosen, however unwittingly, to be in the company of illiberal democracies such as Rwanda, Uganda, Chile, Peru and Egypt. The only countries that will be harsher than India on teenage sex are those that do not recognise any age of consent at all. In Islamic countries like Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Iran and Pakistan, any sex outside marriage is criminal and liable to severe punishment, even if it is entirely consensual. It's a pity that amid all the reforms made in the wake of the Nirbhaya case, India took a retrograde step on teenage sex.
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