Protection from sexual offences Prasanna Timble As law students we studied that law is an instrument of social change. However, I have observed the trend is that laws enacted by the Government lately, reflect social anxiety. They neither act as instruments of social engineering nor compliment social change.
The owner of our popular lunch hangout, otherwise a charming woman, seemed very disturbed with an incident that occurred at her restaurant - she had caught some young adults (probably in their late teens), talking about birth control, “I have to do something about this”, she said, “They should not be talking about all this”. I could not figure out what had troubled her more; that they were talking about sex or about birth control. Our society has always hushed, shushed and tiptoed around the taboo subject.
The Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Bill, 2011 passed by the Cabinet to be tabled, seeking to make sexual contact with a girl below 18 years of age illegal, even if it is consensual. The Bill seeks to increase the age of consent from 16 years to 18 years i.e. it makes consensual sex between persons below 18 years illegal. This Bill seems to reflect social anxiety on the subject. One can justify the utility of age of consent if there is an exploitative or coercive situation i.e. in case of cases where children need to be protected from abuse. But, in case of persons who are on the verge of attaining majority and in cases where there is not much difference between the ages of the victim and the accused, exceptions must be made. Otherwise, the effect of the Bill, if enacted, can be quite dangerous. It not only gives a distorted view of something very natural but also gives the police unnecessary power to harass young adults.
A few weeks ago, the Gurgaon Administration has imposed a curfew on women working after 8:00 pm after a 23-year-old woman was victim of a multi perpetrator rape near her workplace. I fail to understand how women will be protected if they get home early. What about crimes taking place against women during the day or at workplaces? Or even within the four walls of their home? What about crimes against women traveling by train? Should we ban women from travelling at night? The very unsympathetic Gurgaon Administration did not realise that imposing restrictions on the movement of women, questioning the character of the victim, will only make it simpler for employers to employ men instead. Women should not be treated as a problem just because they are the ‘vulnerable gender.
A few months back, the Governments of the states of Maharashtra and Delhi raised the gage of drinking alcohol – being below 25 is illegal. Youngsters have the right to vote, to drive or ride a vehicle, fight in a war or wed and have a family at 18 or 21 years of age but cannot drink till 25. The law is absurd!
It seems to me that that our elected governments have assumed the role of a parent. Parenting is not within the powers and duties of administration. The above laws are examples of complete disregard of the Government of changes in the social outlook towards sensitive issues.
A few days ago, Judge Kamini Lau, Delhi High Court, in a thumbs down to the Bill passed by the Union Cabinet, making sex illegal for persons below 18 years of age, acquitted a youth facing trial for abducting a girl in October 2008. The Court said that the girl and the accused boy were in love and had eloped due to opposition by their respective families. The Court has also asked the Central Government to rethink its stand considering changing attitudes of the society.
I do not want to make a point of liberal versus conservative or moral versus immoral. I only want to say that Law is an instrument of social change and changing society calls for change in laws.
The Bill, no doubt has a noble aim, but, in the absence of certain safeguards seems an ill thought and regressive law. Just three days before the much talked about episode of the Aamir Khan hosted Satyamev Jayate on child sexual abuse, the Rajya Sabha passed the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Bill, 2011. The Bill provides that if the victim is aged 16-18 years, then it shall be considered if the victims consent was obtained voluntarily. But neither Satyamav Jayate nor the Bill have considered cases where the accused is himself aged less than 18 years.
Several western countries have taken a lenient view of teenage relationships. They have done so to supplement the trend of social changes. However, there can be some deterrents if the relationship is a coercive one or where the age gap between the victim and accused is higher.
Furthermore, in villages, getting married before the age of 18 is quite common. Would all those cases be treated as crimes and persons involved, criminals? Educating people about the advantages of a later marriage is one thing, but making teen sex illegal ignores the reality, and criminalizes innocents. There is also the risk that such a move could lead to a spurt in young girls going to quacks for abortions to escape the clutches of the law. Suicides and honour killings too might rise with this ill-thought-out measure.