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Let’s Get This Straight – Age Of Consent And Marriageable Age Are Two Different Things!

If men and women can vote and decide the fate of a nation at the same age, why can’t they decide their sex life at the same age? Why does a woman have to be younger?

Will you believe it if I say the age of consent for marriage for women in India was 10? No? But that was the scenario in 1860 when widows were reported even as young as month-old babies.

In 1891, it was increased to 12 years by the British government, due to multiple cases of death of girl children due to rape by their legally wed grandfather-old “husbands”. Even this was met with vehement opposition from staunch Hindus as “interference in their religious sentiments.”

As years progressed, the age for consent for marriage increased to 14, 16, and now 18 (Prevention of child marriage (PCM) Act,2006), and the current government has proposed that it be increased to 21 for women. The same age of consent (for marriage) for men is 21.

Why child marriages?

To understand better, we need to start with how child marriages originated in the first place.

For any group to sustain itself, it must maintain its population. Hindu society is fragmented into millions of caste groups. Each for its survival, needs to maintain its population. For that to be possible, caste interlinking should not happen.

To prevent this, children were ‘booked’ for marriage within their caste at a very young age. But what happens if the male partner dies? By nature, the female would find another partner. This disturbs the demographic balance in a society that already had more girl children surviving than male children, and that believes in controlling the sexuality of women. Therefore, women were killed in the name of sati to “maintain the balance.”

But it was not possible to keep killing every woman, therefore the men framed rules to make her look displeasing by tonsuring her head, making her wear plain clothes, etc., so that other men in the same or different group would not like her.

This created a huge demand for girl brides, resulting in a situation where even one-year-old girl children were married to 70-year-old men and becoming widows soon after. These interlinked regressive practices continue to date, with modifications.

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The extent our laws go to save pedophiles from rape charges

Therefore, it took a lot of years to increase the age of consent in a step-by-step manner. UNICEF reports India has the highest number of child brides. In its latest report, India and 4 other countries together account for more than half of the world’s child marriages. There was a 17% raise in distress calls regarding child marriage during the lockdown in India. There is no doubt that this needs to be addressed.

One may argue that what was in the statutes needs to be in practice. But there are a lot of ambiguities in these laws themselves.

For example, section 375 of IPC says, sexual intercourse of a man with his wife of 15 years above is not rape. So, a man can marry a child and rape her from 15 years onwards and still would not be considered a rapist.

This is the extent our laws go to save pedophiles from rape charges. The buck does not stop here.

Even the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006, does not outrightly annul all child marriages. The act declares the marriage as void only under the following circumstances – kidnapped, sold, or forced. The remaining child marriages are only voidable, meaning, the contracting party needs to approach a court to declare it void.

For example, a minor who was married off should either go to a court with her guardian (mostly on whose persuasion she was married off) or should wait till she becomes a major and approach a court to declare her marriage void. Needless to say, she can be raped till then. A cruel joke indeed.

Are laws about age of consent truly for the benefit of women?

Justice Vimala of Madras HC too highlighted a lot of discrepancies in these acts and referred a case to the Chief Justice to consider looking into the constitutional validity of the POCSO act.

There are several anomalies in our Indian laws regarding consenting age for women, making one wonder whether these laws are actually framed for the good of women. The Indian Majority Act fixes 18 as the age of attaining majority for all. However, the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006, says, child marriages are void if it is forced.

How can a minor person give full consent to marriage? The very mention of the word ‘forced’ makes it seem like child marriages happen with consent too, thereby legitimizing it.

On one hand, rapists are legally husbands even if it is against the will of the women. On the other hand, these laws simply drag consenting teenagers to court when the girl’s parents want to punish a guy with whom their daughter might be having a consensual relationship. A study by the National Law School, Bangalore reveals the exploitation of the POCSO Act by parents of teenagers.

It all boils down to two things

1) Need for an age of sexual consent fixed rationally and uniformly for men and women;

2) Understanding that marriageable age is different from age of sexual content and that too needs to be uniform considering marriages are bound to happen between two consulting adults of same age bracket, a little after they have explored their sexuality.

Without an iota of doubt, this would also attract sharp criticism from conservatives for meddling with ‘culture’ and ‘sentiments’. But history shows us that every step forward against the conservatives is indeed a step towards a better future. Those whose ‘honor’ and ‘culture’ is intact when minor girl children are legally raped should have no say in determining the future. They should also understand that these two different cutoff ages exist for men already.

It is high time lawmakers and the public understand, age of consent and marriageable age are two different things. In most countries, the laws prescribe different ages for both situations. Similarly, India too needs to come up with such amendments. This is the only place where different ages can be set as cutoff, unlike the current discrepancies that jeopardise women for not being of a certain age to book their ‘husband’ for rape and brutally validates it.

If men and women can vote and decide the fate of a nation at the same age, why can’t they decide their sex life at the same age?

Image source: bbtomas from Getty Images Free for Canva Pro

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Aswini Ashok

Wannabe optimist. Argumentative. Dangerously impulsive. Expert idiot. Yet a spirited versatile. read more...

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