sexual offences

Law prohibiting sexual offences against children sparks controversy over age of consent

The Protection of Children against Sexual Offences Act, 2012 was passed by both Houses of Parliament on May 22.  The legislation defines various types of sexual offences against children and provides penalties for such acts. According to a report commissioned by the Ministry of Women and Child Development in 2007, about 53% of the children interviewed reported some form of sexual abuse.  The law has been viewed as a welcome step by most activists since it is gender neutral (both male and female children are covered), it clearly defines the offences and includes some child friendly procedures for reporting, recording of evidence, investigation and trial of offences.  However, the issue of age of consent has generated some controversy.  Age of consent refers to the age at which a person is considered to be capable of legally giving informed consent to sexual acts with another person. Before this law was passed, the age of consent was considered to be 16 years (except if the woman was married to the accused, in which case it may be lower).  Section 375 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 states that any sexual intercourse with a woman who is below the age of 16 years is considered to be “rape”.  The consent of the person is irrelevant. This post provides a snapshot of the key provisions of the Act, the debate surrounding the controversial provision and a comparison of the related law in other countries. Key provisions of the Act

  • The Act defines a child as any person below the age of 18 years and provides protection to all children from offences such as sexual assault, penetrative sexual assault and sexual harassment.  It also penalises a person for using a child for pornographic purposes.
  • The Act states that a person commits “sexual assault” if he touches the vagina, penis, anus or breast of a child with sexual intent without penetration.
  • The Act treats an offence as “aggravated” if it is committed by a person in a position of authority or trust such as a member of the security forces, a police officer or a public servant.
  • It specifies penalties for the offences and provides a mechanism for reporting and trial of such offences.

Debate over the age of consent After introduction, the Bill was referred to the Standing Committee on Human Resource Development.  The Committee submitted its report on December 21, 2011 (see here and here for PRS Bill Summary and  Standing Committee Summary, respectively).  Taking into account the recommendations of the Standing Committee, the Parliament decided to amend certain provisions of the Bill before passing it. The Bill stated that if a person is accused of “sexual assault” or “penetrative sexual assault” of a child between 16 and 18 years of age, it would be considered whether the consent of the child was taken by the accused.   This provision was deleted from the Bill that was passed. The Bill (as passed) states that any person below the age of 18 years shall be considered a child.  It prohibits a person from engaging in any type of sexual activity with a child.  However, the implication of this law is not clear in cases where both parties are below 18 years (see here and here for debate on the Bill in Rajya Sabha and Lok Sabha). The increase in the age of consent to 18 years sparked a debate among experts and activists. Proponents of increasing the age of consent argued that if a victim is between 16 and 18 years of age, the focus of a sexual assault case would be on proving whether he or she consented to the act or not.  The entire trial process including cross-examination of the victim would focus on the conduct of the victim rather than that of the accused (see here and here). Opponents of increasing the age of consent pointed out that since this Act criminalises any sexual activity with persons under the age of 18 years (even if consensual), the police may misuse it to harass young couples or parents may use this law to control older children’s sexual behaviour (see here and here).  International comparison In most countries, the age of consent varies between 13 and 18 years.  The table below lists the age of consent and the corresponding law in some selected countries. 

Countries

Age of consent

Law

US Varies from state to state between 16 and 18 years.  In some states, the difference in age between the two parties is taken into account.  This can vary between 2-4 years. Different state laws
UK 16 years Sexual Offences Act, 2003
Germany 14 years (16 years if the accused is a person responsible for the child’s upbringing, education or care). German Criminal Code
France 15 years French Criminal Code
Sweden 15 years (18 years if the child is the accused person’s offspring or he is responsible for upbringing of the child). Swedish Penal Code
Malaysia 16 years for both males and females. Malaysian Penal Code; Child Act 2001
China No information about consent.  Sex with a girl below 14 years is considered rape.  Sodomy of a child (male or female) below 14 years is an offence. Criminal Law of China, 1997
Canada 16 years Criminal Code of Canada
Brazil 14 years Brazilian Penal Code 2009
Australia Varies between 16 and 17 years among different states and territorial jurisdictions.  In two states, a person may engage in sexual activity with a minor if he is two years older than the child.  In such cases the child has to be at least 10 years old. Australian Criminal laws
India 18 years. Protection of Children Against Sexual Offences Act, 2012