Once is a one-off. Two, may be, a me-too. But thrice? Now that's a pattern. And when it stems from a select quarter — law lords in one city's local courts — it's a cause for concern. It is hoped their aggravation will not be elevated shortly — even as India's children receive some alleviation — when the President signs into being the country's first-ever law against child sexual abuse: The Protection of Children From Sexual Offences Act.
What is not in the Act is making their honours 'editorialise', a point noted by the chief justice, who once remarked on a few of his black-robed flock straying afar from the sum-total of the need of their judgements. Yet they come, those appended assertions: "A woman should follow her husband the way Sita did." "Helpless boys become victims as they do not understand the consequences of their act."
The latter is reported as his honour's view on sex with 16-year-old girls, though the girl eloped when she was 15. The Act is then called "a step backward". Another lordship garners publicity for dubbing the Act "undemocratic" after a minor girl runs away from home, parents file a report and the girl is 'married' by a religious movement, which did not care to ask for age-proof. Perhaps — as adults who broke the law — they, too, did not "understand the consequences of their act" in a patriarchal framework fed further by filmi images of a touchingly-trusting virgin-girl forsaking all for love.
Reality check. That young maid who tossed the infant out of the balcony? She, too, ran away. He married her and fed her into the human-trafficking chain. Much later, while tending to the child, something snapped. The consequences of child sexual abuse tend to have long-reaching and horrific outcomes; they don't conveniently stop at that one victim.
The Act is about sexual acts upon children by adults. It does not concern itself with acts of minors upon each other, be it sexual experimentation or criminal acts. This comes under the existing Juvenile Justice Act. The Act does not demand the lowering of the age of majority, which starts at 18, since this would also mean that privileges accorded to the teens between 16-18 years would be lifted — be it a civil case or a criminal one — and the child will then be dealt with in adult courts as per adult law, this requires wide-ranging national debate. Not by politicians or NGOs but by parents, principals, psychiatrists, paediatricians, other stakeholders like grandparents and guardians, and the teens themselves on whether they want the loss of legal protection. If so, what should the dropped cut-off age be — 17 or 16? And where should it stop to drop since both, hormones and criminal tendencies, are coming in to play much before 13?
Meanwhile, the Act sets out boundaries, it expects adult self-accountability, it clearly spells out the consequences of each sexual act upon a child. The Act also keeps in mind that the age of consent for men has always been 18. However, the age of consent for girls was 16. This means that she was 'rape-able' from then on. So the Act brings parity in age — 18 for boys and 18 for girls.
Here are some statistics. Children form a sickening chunk of the Rs. 40,000-crore female and male prostitution business in India. Of this, 25% of child prostitutes are between 15-18 years of age. Five lakh boys and girls are forced into this trade every year; it would be safe to surmise that many of these were seduced into elopement by adult men.
Yet, while sending out messages that our girls are less than our boys, they romanticise matters. They generalise the exceptions. They imply that parents should not bother protecting their children, simply leave the girl to her 'fate' because she ran away anyway. They ominously warn of the opening of 'floodgates for prosecution of boys by girls' parents even when she is consenting'. Thus, they term the Act 'regressive'.
That term would actually apply to the deeply distressing ruling where a Muslim mother, appealing to the secular law of the land, has been reminded of her auqaat through her jaat. (The police had not pursued her complaint that her 15-year-old daughter was kidnapped, that the man had criminally intimidated her with the abduction of her second daughter.) A week later, albeit in a different context, the Supreme Court wisely points out that the "basis cannot be only religion".
Special courts will be set up as part of the Act. Judges heading them will presumably be sensitised to apply the law from the victim's point of view. Hopefully, they will apply it judiciously too. Not only for the 'overlap' cases wherein a 16-17 minor might register a complaint against an 18-19 major. But also in a marriage case at the tender ages of 17 or 18; an early marriage decreases the chances of education and later comes in the way of making other important choices.
Which is why judges are needed by the country. Or else any law, in any country, suffices to apply directly at a police station. Misinterpretations need not mar the faith that parents wish to place in the new law of the land. Our children need to be protected, our judges are our elders and best placed with the Act to do so.
Pinki Virani is the author of Deaf Heaven, a fictional take on fate versus free will. The views expressed by the author are personal. Barkha Dutt's column Third Eye will appear on July 7.