The Indian government is under growing fire from children’s rights activists for new legislation pushed through the Cabinet to define sex under the age of 18, even if consensual, as statutory rape.
As matters stand now, two persons over the age of 16 can consent to have sex without legal repercussions. Indians vote at 18 while the legal age for marriage for girls is 18 and for boys 21. However, the Protection of Children against Sexual Offenses Bill, as it is called would make sex under the age of 18 an offense that would be tried under the Juvenile Justice Act, carrying a maximum punishment of three years imprisonment.
There are plenty of problems for children in India. According to a 2007 report by the Ministry of Women and Child Development, an astonishing. 53.22 percent of all children surveyed reported having faced one or more forms of sexual abuse, with 21.90 percent of the children who responded reporting severe forms of sexual abuse and 50.76 percent reporting other forms. Of the child respondents, 5.69 percent reported being sexually assaulted.
Nonetheless, rights activists say the bill, which must be passed by both houses of the Parliament, is regressive, criminalizing teenage lovers, especially in a country where child marriages still occur among castes. The measure has nothing to do with the real solutions that are needed to tackle crimes against women, they say, but fear it will put a new tool into the hands of policemen who too often prowl lovers’ lanes, seeking to shake down the young men and women they apprehend.
The ostensible reason for the legislation stems from the large populations of deprived and impoverished youth and children who continue to be exploited for prostitution, child and bonded labor and who are working in factories, small roadside restaurants, car repair shops, domestic helps and many more. The thinking seems to be that they need to be protected from adult mercenary predators who think nothing beyond commercial gains, illegal trafficking and the selling of bodies.
Many instances have emerged in the recent past of minor girls belonging to tribal areas in Eastern India being illegally trafficked to feed the growing domestic maid requirements in the national capital New Delhi. Many of the girls have faced physical and sexual assault at the hands of their handlers and also eventual employers. It is Eastern India that is facing the acute problem of a long-running and growing armed Maoist insurgency which is finding fertile ground in an extremely impoverished local population ignored by the central government and riddled with corruption.
Yet there is a difference between adult males exploiting minor girls as opposed to two teenagers the same age choosing to be together. There are large swathes of urban India who have found high levels of sexual activity among youth exposed to satellite television, the Internet, Hollywood and Bollywood movies.
These are youths who grow up on soaps such as Friends and Sex and the City and are exposed to suggestive commercials and online pornography that only whet sexual curiosity. Many possess considerable disposable income courtesy of their high earning parents, but are definitely endowed with the freedom to explore their creative, intellectual and often sexual selves.
With girls today reaching puberty by the age of 10 and boys 13 according to a recent UNICEF study, it is well established that biological and hormonal changes engender teenage curiosities under cover or otherwise, India and anywhere else. There is reason that Indian-origin porn star turned Bollywood actress Sunny Leon has been trending high on online search engines in India for some time now.
Innumerable studies, meanwhile, have highlighted high levels of teenage sexual activity in India, while the large number of scandals involving school and college kids across the country only reinforces the occurrence.
Even in rural India, the rise in honor killing is said by social scientists to indicate a lack of understanding of changing sexual mores of youth who are exposed to the wider global milieu via multiple media options that can range from TV to cheap 3G cell phones to broadband connectivity. India’s telecom revolution has clocked high growth due to such populations.
While European nations and America have long recognized social reality in the formulation of their laws, New Delhi seems to have betrayed a lack of understanding and sensitivity that could eventually bracket the country with a select few retrograde Islamic countries with a similar law. This is paradoxical as the government has displayed maturity in handling the issue of gay sex, which is no longer illegal in the country.
The near-universal impression of India as a conservative, closed society where boys and girls are not supposed to look at each other till the age of 18 is anachronistic, radical, lacks sensitivity, is self-righteous and misses’ the point.
The issue is whether teenagers should be hauled up instead of being sensitized about adequate protection, contraception and the emotional contours concomitant with intimate relationships, especially young girls.
In India, young couples do not have it easy in any case. The police keep a close vigil in parks, cars, shopping areas, beaches, anywhere. The cops wait for the lust- and love-stricken boy and girl to shed inhibitions and then harass them to part with belongings ranging from wallets, watches, cell phones and any jewelry items. Physical assault is always a police option.
This is the strict, inhuman and callous legal implementation of an archaic Indian law dating back to pre-independence British times that punishes couples for public obscenity. If our security personnel took out criminals and terrorists with the same zeal as they scour for young couples discovering each other physically, our country would be a much safer place to live.
If young lovers believed that the situation could get no worse for them, they could be mistaken. There is no reason why policemen prowling for easy money will not insinuate rape to corner any young boy and girl just hanging out. India, despite being the land where the Kama Sutra originated, is not an easy place to profess love.
(Siddharth Srivastava is a New Delhi-based journalist.)