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Telangana Abduction Case Shows How Parents Criminalise Romantic Love To Control Daughters

When the family of a minor comes to know of her relationship with a man deemed unsuitable for her, they threaten to register a case under POCSO against her lover, even if he too is of the same or similar age as her.

In a recent case in Telangana, an 18 year old woman was kidnapped by four men who grabbed her and bundled her into a car while she was walking to a temple with her father. The incident was captured on CCTV, based on which the police were able to identify the perpetrators. In a bizarre twist, however, within a few hours of the abduction, the alleged victim released a short video where she clarified that she had colluded with her lover to stage her own kidnapping to escape being forcibly married to someone else.

Parents trying to control a daughter’s choice

Apparently, the couple had been in a relationship for 4 years, but her family disapproved of the match because he belonged to an oppressed caste. They had tried to get married 10 months earlier too, but since she was still a minor at that time, her family had registered a case under POCSO (Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012) against him, and after due counselling she had been handed back to her parents. On majority, she staged her own abduction, got married to her lover in a temple and even sought the protection of the police to ensure that her family did not try to forcibly take her back home.

This was one of the rare cases where a minor was able to evade the efforts of her parents to get her married off to a man of their choice till she turned 18 and could legally marry her lover. In most cases, however, parents use a combination of legal threats, physical violence and emotional blackmail to break up relationships they disapprove of. The laws that set the legal age of marriage, and the age of consent were enacted to protect women, but the same laws are often misused to rob women of their agency.

Minimum age for marriage is set at 18 to prevent child marriages, not for controlling her

In 1978, the minimum age of marriage for women was set at 18 years, yet it is estimated that nearly 30% of women in India were married before legal age.

What this translates into in reality is that when a family wants to marry their daughter before the legal age, they do so with full social sanction, but if an underage woman wants to marry a man of her choice, the parents use the law to break up the union. Anecdotally, we hear of many cases where families get their minor daughters married off immediately on finding out about a relationship that they deem unsuitable.

The law against child marriage is, therefore, used to target intercaste, interfaith and other relationships deemed unsuitable.

Age of consent laws misused by parents of teenagers

In the aftermath of the protests following the Nirbhaya case, the age of consent for both genders was raised from 16 to 18 years, and even consensual sexual relationships are deemed to be a criminal offence under POCSO. When the family of a minor comes to know of her relationship with a man deemed unsuitable for her, they threaten to register a case under POCSO against her lover, even if he too is of the same or similar age as her. This is a powerful threat, because the punishment for non-consensual sex can extend upto 10 years particularly if the man is an adult. The sexual autonomy of adolescents is therefore taken away from them by criminalising consensual sex involving minors.

On analysing all the registered cases of rape in Delhi in 2014, a study found that of the 40 % of them were actually cases of consensual sex, where the parents of the woman disapproved of the man and charged him with rape. Though, eventually, these cases do not result in conviction, the accused goes through a lot of emotional and financial stress, and often gets falsely branded as a criminal. This parental criminalisation of consensual sexual relationships is a gross misuse of a law that was brought in for a very different purpose.

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The same parents get underage daughters married off

In India, where adolescent sexuality is frowned upon and inter-caste, inter-faith and inter-community relationships are strongly discouraged, these laws serve as weapons in the hands of parents who want to control the romantic relationships of their children. The same parents who are willing to violate the law to get their daughters married to a man of their choice before she turns 18, use the same laws to accuse the man their daughter loves of statutory rape. The law, unfortunately, does not recognise the difference between a consensual and a non-consensual relationship.

This was brought to the forefront in a case brought before the Madras High Court in 2019 after a lower court had convicted a 19 year old man of kidnapping and sexually assaulting a 17 year old woman, despite her testimony that it was a consensual relationship. After reviewing her testimony and noting both the lack of evidence and the family’s intent to conduct an arranged marriage, in a landmark ruling, the High Court overruled the decision of the lower court. The judges also opined that given the fact that the age from 16 to 18 years is one of peak adolescent sexuality, the age of consent should be lowered to 16 to decriminalise adolescents in a consensual relationship.

In light of the fact that the laws that are meant to protect young women are actually used to deny her sexual and romantic autonomy, there is a need to take a relook at the laws and to ensure that they do not end up denying young people their rights.

Image source: a still from the film What Will People Say

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About the Author

Natasha Ramarathnam

Natasha works in the development sector, where most of her experience has been in Education and Livelihoods. She is passionate about working towards gender equity, sustainability and positive climate action. And avid reader and occasional read more...

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