Experts For Raising Statutory Rape Age To 16

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New Delhi, Feb 6 (UNI) Experts today recommended making sexual relation with a girl below 16 years-- married or not-- a crime, and marriages of children below 16 void-- and of those between 16-18, voidable.

Those were among the findings of India's Law Commission which studied the issue of child marriages and held that the age of marriage for both boys and girls be 18 years.

''There's no scientific reason why this should be different,'' Commission chairman A R Lakshmanan said in one of two Reports he presented to Law and Justice Minister Hans Raj Bhardwaj.

Speaking to journalists, Commission expert Kirti Singh pointed out there was no rationale why boys, who may vote or take other decisions after 18, must wait to be 21 before marrying.

The experts also recommended that having sexual relation with a girl below 16 ought to be a crime, whether or not she is married.

''Exception to the rape Section 375 of the Indian Penal Code be deleted,'' the Commission stressed, adding ''this would ensure that the age of consent for sexual intercourse for all girls, whether married or not, is 16.'' Currently, the IPC makes it a crime to have a sexual relation with a married child under the age of 15 years.

''There is no provision in the law to stop a child bride from living with her husband and from being sexually abused apart from other forms of abuse,'' an expert said.

Experts say to ignore the adverse effects of child marriage vis a vis the girl child would be to ignore the manner in which the child bride experiences life and a denial of the fact that girls are human beings with fundamental rights, including the right to life.

In India, Child marriages has long defied a solution.

Indian laws have for decades tried to discourage child marriages but the practice continues unabated.

A National Family Health Survey of 29 States in 2005-06 ''confirmed'' that 45 per cent women currently aged 20-24 years were married by the time they were 18.

The percentage was much higher in rural areas-- 58.5 per cent-- than in urban areas-- 27.9 per cent-- and exceeded 50 per cent in eight States.

The prevalence percentage was most pronounced in Jharkhand, 61.2, Bihar, 60.3, Rajasthan, 57.1, Andhra Pradesh, 54.7 and 53 each in Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal.

Singh, a part-time member, and additional government counsel Pawan Sharma helped put together the Proposal To Amend The Prohibition of Child Marriage Act 2006 And Other Allied Laws.

The phenomenon is attributed to poverty and culture, tradition and values based on patriarchal norms.

Girls were traditionally regarded as a liability and child marriage an easy way out, not to mention a protection against unwanted masculine attention or promiscuity.

''Boys are also affected by child marriages but the issue impacts girls in far larger numbers and with more intensity.'' ''Where a girl lives with a man and takes on the role of caregiver for him, the assumption is often that she has become an adult woman, even if she has not yet reached the age of 18.'' The issue is complicated by such factors as sexually transmitted diseases caught from spouses, who are often older.

Most countries ban early marriages and regard sexual relation below the age of 16 years as crime.

In India, age of consent was raised from ten years in 1860 to 12 years in 1891, 14 years in 1925 and 16 years in 1940.

Age mentioned in the marital rape exception was ten years in 1860, 12 years in 1891, 13 years in 1925 and 15 years since 1940.

Experts indicate that legal handling has been far from effective. ''I seriously think,'' said Kirti Singh, ''we should have been more attentive.'' A study by the United Nations Children's Fund showed that the number of prosecutions did not exceed 89 in any one year-- ''obviously not an accurate reflection of the number of cases of child marriage which are occurring in the country.'' The Commission report says the age for sexual consent should be 16 for all young girls regardless of marriage and registration of marriage made compulsory, presumably irrespective of personal laws.

Another recommendation of the Commission pertained to making father a class I heir of a deceased male alongwith mother, so that ''both together should take one share.'' Indian laws classify heirs in Class I and Class II, depending on the degree of relationships.

Lakshmanan, who became chairman last year, said changes effected in 2005 in the Hindu Succession Act 1956 while giving daughters equal property rights, happened to omit certain categories of heirs.

The Commission acknowledged that ''certain legislative inadvertences had crept in the law.'' The changes also failed to include as class I heirs two of the male descendants in the daughter's line while listing their female counterparts.

''This omission has no basis on plane of principle but creates reverse discrimination against the male descendants in the daughter's line,'' it noted, stressing that the anomaly ''be rectified.'' UNI MJ RP HT1850

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