Rashi Aditi Ghosh /Zee Research Group
Is the age of consent in India pitched right at 18? Not so, many would say and argue to lower it to 16 at par with global standards. At present, the law takes an extreme view and deems sex under the age of 18, even if consensual, as statutory rape.
With changing attitudes, such extreme technical view won’t help the cause of adolescents and may further prevent them from getting advice on contraception, sexually transmitted diseases including AIDS.
A global comparison shows that India is the only BRICS nation to have an age of consent above 16 years. Not only BRICS, India lags behind even many of its smaller South Asian neighbours like Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka where the age of consent is at 16. Lowering the age of consent has found support in the Justice J S Verma Committee report.
Welcoming the proposal to lower the age of consent to make it congruous with the biological needs of Indian adolescents, Anjali Gopalan, executive director at the New Delhi-based Naz Foundation asserts, “I believe that lowering down the age of consent to 16 years in India, if taken, would be a great initiative towards understanding the adolescents and their biological behavior. As younger people in India are now sexually active so, criminalising their sexual encounters at younger age would worsen the present scenario. It is important to understand the biological behavior but with appropriate information on safety measures regarding health risks.”
According to a UNICEF report ‘Opportunity in Crisis: Preventing HIV from Early Adolescence to Young Adulthood’, globally it is estimated that about 5 million young people aged 15–24 live with HIV. Sex before the age of 15 and between partners where there is a large age gap may increase the risk of HIV transmission.
UNICEF report also reveals that India along with South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique, Uganda, the United Republic of Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe have the highest numbers of adolescent boys and girls living with HIV.
Law cannot remain static and must adjust itself to ever changing societal dynamics. Dr Neelam Sukhramani, Associate professor at the department of social work, Jamia Millia Islamia says, “Criminalising a socially accepted sexual behavior would be against social ethos. So, lowering down the age of consent, if taken, would help the law in keeping pace with the changing social reality. A law has to be responsive but it also has to be accompanied with intervention. Initiatives like Adolescent Reproductive and Sexual Health (ARSH) under the National Rural Health Mission (NRHM) that focuses on reorganising the existing public health system to meet the service needs of adolescents, can help this kind of legal interventions to perform aptly in India.”