When does childhood end and adulthood begin? The International Convention on the Rights of the Child defines a child as any human being below the age of 18. But in India, a signatory to the Convention, there has always been a great deal of confusion on the age below which one is considered a child. For example, the legal age of marriage for a girl is 18 but the age of sexual consent is 15. So, in effect, the law accepts that it is possible for a girl to be married by 15, even though that is in violation of the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006. The Child Labour Prohibition Act defines those below 14 as children and those between the ages of 14 to 18 are permitted to work in hazardous industries. It is with a view to clear this muddle that the Law Commission has sought to make the marriage age a uniform 18 for both boys and girls and the age of sexual consent 16. Of course, this still leaves much to be desired but is a welcome first step.
The bewildering cornucopia of laws governing children and juveniles with their varying definitions of age has made it easy for abusers and offenders to exploit the loopholes and get away with crimes against children. In a country like India with its appallingly poor system of recording births and deaths, millions of children do not know their real age. This creates several problems. One, it denies access to children into the school system where a birth certificate is mandatory. Two, it once again allows the exploitation of children by unscrupulous people who can claim that the child is actually of the age of consent.
The Law Commission’s next step should be to recommend that the age of the child in all laws should be the same and based on scientific parameters and the definitions laid down in the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Local laws should also follow the same age guidelines as the national ones, so that there is no doubt as to who is or is not a child. India is bound to do so under the Convention on Child Rights that states that all signatories ensure that all legislation is fully compatible with the Convention. As with all our social sector laws, the devil lies in the implementation. We can only hope that the Law Commission’s efforts will not fall by the wayside and will translate into a real weapon against the exploitation of children.