New Delhi, March 5: The Centre plans to roll back its recent controversial moves to make the rape law gender-neutral and raise the age of consent for sex from 16 to 18 years, sources said.
Women’s and children’s activists and lawyers had criticised the earlier decisions, saying a gender-neutral rape law could be used to harass women and a higher age of consent to harass teenagers.
The Justice J.S. Verma committee, tasked to look into women’s safety issues and sexual assault laws following the Delhi bus gang rape, too recommended that rape laws be made women-specific and the age of consent lowered to 16.
A cabinet note has now been prepared replacing the words “sexual assault” by “rape” in the Criminal Law (Amendment) Ordinance and reducing the age of consent back to 16, the sources said.
It has, however, maintained status quo on not making marital rape an offence, they added.
The moves to gender-neutrality and a higher age of consent were made in the Criminal Law (Amendment) Bill, introduced in Parliament on December 4 last year. It also replaced “man” with “person” in several penal code sections, including Section 375, which defines “rape”.
On February 4, the government promulgated the Criminal Law (Amendment) Ordinance that is in effect now. A House panel okayed both the bill and the ordinance in its report to the Rajya Sabha last week.
Asked about the government’s purported proposal to undo the two recent amendments, House panel chief Venkaiah Naidu said: “We have not been told about any changes.”
The government anyway plans to withdraw the bill in this session of Parliament and introduce a new one, which may incorporate some recommendations of the Verma committee, to replace the ordinance, the sources said.
Rights groups have welcomed the government’s purported change of heart.
“People would have taken advantage of it (a gender-neutral rape law), and the victim would have been harassed by counter complaints or cross-FIRs,” said Jagmati Sangwan of the All India Democratic Women’s Association.
“Gender-neutrality makes sense only when a sizeable number of victims are men,” said lawyer Rebbecca John.
Kavita Krishnan, secretary of the All India Progressive Women’s Association, asked why the government had changed the description of the accused from “man” to “person”. She asked: “Where is the evidence that women are going around raping men?”.
Age of consent
Lawyer and BJP spokesperson Meenakshi Lekhi and criminal lawyer K.T.S. Tulsi welcomed the return to the 16-year cut-off.
“We have to recognise the sexuality of the teenager; they could be in a relationship. Being sexually active at 16 does not make you a criminal,” Lekhi said.
She accused the government of indecision: “The government is clueless. First they increase the age of consent under pressure from certain lobbies; then realisation dawns and they revert to the old rule.”
Krishnan scoffed at the government’s earlier argument that the age of consent had been raised because sex between teenagers is looked down upon in rural areas. She cited child marriages.