THE TRIBUNE / New Delhi, December 21
The landmark law on protection of children from sexual assault and pornography crossed the first big hurdle today as the Parliamentary committee reviewing its provisions cleared the Bill with one major rider. The committee rejected the government’s proposal to treat 16 years as the age of consent and not classify as an offence consensual sexual acts with children aged 16 to 18 years.
Though the Ministry of Child Development, piloting the law, argued for the age of consent saying sexual awareness of children couldn’t be overlooked, the committee said once the law had defined everyone up to 18 years as children, the element of consent should be treated as irrelevant. The ministry’s contention that not having the element of consent would lead to criminalisation of consensual action by 16 to 18-year olds didn’t go down well with the committee which said in its report to the Parliament today, “By having the element of consent, the focus will be on the victim, leading to his or her re-victimisation. Children can’t be exposed to lengthy cross examinations on issues of consent.”
The committee has further asked the government to cover religious institutions like muths, madrasas and monasteries under the law. It accordingly sought amendment to the clause – “Whoever being on the management or staff of an educational institution commits penetrative sexual assault on a child in that institution…would be punished” – to include religious institutions where young boys go to study. The law also covers households, hospitals, schools and juvenile homes.
The parliamentary panel has, however, sought the word “shared household” defined as “a household where the person charged with the offence lives or has at any stage lived in a domestic relationship with the child”. The existing definition is a bit limiting. This clause will protect children from family and is historic considering the 2007 government study which revealed that 53 per cent children had suffered sexual abuse and half of these were at the hands of persons in the position of trust.
The Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Bill 2011 (introduced in the Rajya Sabha on March 23 and referred to the committee) further allows children and anyone from the public to report the offence and its apprehension to the local police or special juvenile police unit. It covers sexual offences against children at the time of communal violence and provides for special courts to deliver justice in a child-friendly environment.
Its landmark features are – definition of sexual assault for the clarity of victims and law enforcers and the presumption that those who committed the offence are accused unless proved otherwise. Though the law has safeguards to prevent false complaints, it ensures that cases don’t fall through for want of evidence which is difficult to collect.
With this law, India seeks to fulfil its commitment to the UN Convention for Rights of the Child that it ratified in December 1992. The law is path-breaking considering 24 per cent rapes in India involve children (11 per cent of these involve those under 14 years). Government data further shows that conviction in rapes fell from 38.7 per cent in 2001 to 30 per cent in 2009; in matters where minors were procured for prostitution, conviction rate fell sharply from 39.1 per cent to 18.9 per cent over the same period.
A STEP FORWARD
Parliamentary Committee rejects government proposal to treat 16 years as the age of consent and not classify as an offence consensual sexual acts with children aged 16 to 18 years