Laws against rape can come up against troublesome edges. The age of consent for sex seems to have caused lawmakers a bit of puzzlement during the finalization of the criminal law (amendment) bill 2013. In a country where child marriage was the norm not too many centuries ago, and where minor marriage still remains a huge problem, the concept of the age of consent for sex sounds a little out of place at first. Doubtless it is fast-changing reality that is behind this concern. But the change is not equal and reality levels are fragmented. Only that can explain the legislators’ thumb-chewing over the age of consent, in contrast to their blithe dismissal of one of the weightiest recommendations of the J.S. Verma commission report: recognition of and penalty for marital rape. There is, therefore, even in this bill that had seemed to promise so much, that old sense of one-step-forward two-steps-back that most of India’s many laws seem to evoke.
But the provision of lowering the age of consent from 18 to 16 years has to be looked at separately for a proper valuation. The intent behind it is wise and forward-looking: the protection of teenagers engaging in consensual sex from vengeful parents and family. Such a provision, it is believed, would encourage young people to be responsible. What is not mentioned, however, is that such a sense of responsibility can grow, not merely with sexual maturity, but with proper education in sex, hygiene and sexual health, embarrassment-free and inexpensive access to the means of safe sex, and an environment in which doubts and fears can be shared with adults. There is also, always, the issue of abuse the moment a law is formulated. There is a further problem that all opponents of the provision, including khap panchayats, have jumped on to. The age of marriage is 18, the age of juvenility is 18, while sex can be consensual at 16. Combined, these different age limits give rather an odd picture of society. India needs more time to smooth out its fragmented perceptions of sexual reality.