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How old is old enough?

There’s an urgent need to amend certain laws to prevent those who journey between the ages of 12 and 18 from falling through the legal cracks, writes Preeti Singh.

india Updated: Aug 04, 2009 23:12 IST
Preeti Singh

It’s strange that in a country where we constantly talk of the demographic dividend and the ‘power of youth’, we can’t agree on the age one needs to cross to assume responsibilities for one’s own life and actions. Most of us wait for the magic number 18 to join the ranks of adulthood in India, but it isn’t that simple.

At 18 you’re eligible to vote, to drive a car, to buy cigarettes, to log into adult chatrooms and marry (if you’re a girl).

At 19 you can sign up to defend the nation. But even though you may nurse a child once you cross 18, you’ve got to wait another seven years to nurse your first ‘official’ alcoholic beverage in most states, including Delhi, or visit a nightclub.

And although the State puts you behind the wheel of a car — not to mention in the driving seat during elections — only after you’re 18, you’re free to have sex once you turn 16, the official age of consent in India.

But this past week, the Lucknow bench of the Allahabad High Court ruled that a girl on the wrong side of 18 is not mentally/physically fit to have consensual sex, maintaining that any such consent can’t be seen as an indication of her free will. The court has asked the state governments and the Centre to give their views on whether they intend to raise the age of consent from 16 to 18, to bring it in line with other statutes. This, while dismissing an appeal by a man charged of raping a 17-year-old girl, whom he claimed to have had consensual intercourse with.

The Indian Penal Code (IPC) defines rape under Section 375 as “sexual intercourse with a woman” against her will and consent. And since the age of consent under Indian law is 16, sex with a girl who is under 16 is considered statutory rape, whether with or without her consent.

Unless, of course, you’re married or in Manipur. Because while Section 375 states that sex between a man and his wife, the wife being over 15, is not rape, in Manipur the legal age of consent is 14.

To complicate matters further, for boys who are not yet 16, any sexual intercourse with or without their consent is frowned upon under the infamous Section 377, which, until recently, criminalised even consensual same-sex relationships.

Interestingly, the Delhi High Court, while decriminalising homosexuality, fixed the age of consent at 18, pending further legislation. And since the judgement referred to “penile non-vaginal sex” — something not confined to same-sex intercourse — there are now, effectively, two legal age limits to cross if one is to legally have sex with a woman: one at 16 (going by Section 375) and another at 18 (going by Section 377)!

So, even though a recently revised law sets the minimum age for marriage as 18 for girls and 21 for boys, there are enough legal anomalies that allow one man the licence to rape his 15-year-old wife, while another can be prosecuted for consensual oral sex with his 17-year-old girlfriend.

Which begs the question: why must we keep juggling all these numbers? Forget adulthood. Take the definition of a ‘child’, for example. While the laws against child labour define a child as someone who is not yet 14, the Juvenile Justice Act sets 18 as the upper limit.

Must we, then, be forced to check birth certificates for age and sex against a list of laws to assess the nature and magnitude of crimes against children, since each comes with its own customised age and gender specifications? Must we stick with a century-and-a-half-old penal code, the liberal interpretations of which are dependant solely on a few imaginative judges?

All in all, there’s an urgent need to amend certain laws to prevent those who journey between the ages of 12 and 18 from falling through the legal cracks. We’ll never mature as a society till we can agree on what is the appropriate age at which we really grow up.

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