UK age of consent debate casts its shadow in India

By ZRG | Last Updated: Nov 20, 2013, 10:49 AM IST

Rashi Aditi Ghosh/Zee Research Group

With the Britain Prime Minister David Cameron rejecting the request of dropping the age of consent to 15, debate over the controversial issue has got reignited in India.

India witnessed a fierce debate over the age of consent post the Nirbhaya gang rape late last year. However, despite the public hue and cry resulting in late Justice J S Verma committee recommending lowering the age to16, the anti-rape Bill retained the age of consent at 18.

The age of consent debate erupted recently when the plea for lowering the age was officially turned down. Earlier, Professor John Ashton, president of the Faculty of public health, United Kingdom, proposed that society had to accept `the facts` that around a third of boys and girls have sex at 14 or 15. He claimed that countries in Europe that have lower ages of consent tend to see teenagers starting sexual relationships later and have lower rates of teenage pregnancy.

The Faculty of Public Health, which represents doctors working in this field, is independent of government but advises ministers and civil servants.

Back home the Parliament passed the anti-rape bill keeping the age of consent at 18 but home minister Sushil Kumar Shinde on March 26 this year tried to defend his ministry`s original proposal of lowering the age to 16 by citing the 153-year-old Indian Penal Code (IPC) and slammed critics for being ignorant of the 1860 law.

Talking about adolescence and it’s relation to age of consent, Dr Vandana Prasad, member of National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR), and an expert on child health issues said, “In India, the issue of lowering the age of consent from 18 to 16 years should be dealt from the perspective of adolescent sexuality. I believe that children should not be provoked to have sex but they should definitely be made aware of their sexual behavior.”

On who should be held responsible for consensual sex, Dr Prasad further added, “It is not correct to criminalize a young boy for having consensual sex with a young girl of his age because in that case both of them are young and less immature to take decisions. So the rights of children should be gender neutral as suggested in the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act-2012(POSCO). In my view, age of consent should be lowered but the age of marriage should be kept as it is.”

Late Justice Verma Committee earlier recommended that the age of consent should be reduced to sixteen, and necessary amendments be made in the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012, in order to avoid contradictions with the Indian Penal Code.

Concurring with the view, Mohammad Aftab, child protection manager, Save the Children NGO, India said, “There needs to be more harmonization between different laws. For example, the Hindu Marriage Law pegs it at 16 while the new POCSO Act pegs age of consent at 18. These inconsistencies between different laws need to be removed. Age of consent should be decided on the basis of sociological realities taking into account the health and legal concerns as well.”

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.

Professor John Ashton’s point of view on age of consent shows some significance for India. For protection of children age of consent is fixed at 18 years in India but this does not act as a respite from teenage pregnancies and infant mortality.

According to a United Nations Population Fund (UNPF) report, three out of seven deaths that take place every hour in India due to complications from pregnancy are among girls in the age group of 15-24.

The UNPF report further said, "Adolescent pregnancy is not just a health issue, it is a development issue. It is rooted in poverty, gender inequality, child marriage and lack of education. It often means an abrupt end to childhood, curtailed education and lost opportunities.”

While the risk of teenage pregnancy calls for lowering the age of consent and supports the view of spreading awareness on sexual relationships at early teenage, another report by UNICEF raises the risk of HIV contamination from sex before the age of 15.

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.