India is finally ready with a comprehensive Bill that will protect children from sexual abuse. But the Bill, says author-activist Pinki Virani, has a major flaw regarding sexual consent that needs to be immediately addressed and the stakeholders consulted before it becomes law.

With a certain Standing Committee so much in the news, let us look at what is happening with another Standing Committee looking into a Bill to protect children from sexual abuse by adults. Author-activist Pinki Virani, a National Award winner for Bitter Chocolate: Child Sexual Abuse in India, has been lobbying for a comprehensive law on this issue for more than a decade. Here, she opens up on the detailed letter she has sent the Standing Committee on what more needs to be fixed before the Parliament votes it in as a landmark law. Excerpts from an interview…

What exactly does the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Bill, 2011, entail?

It is India's first legislation, ever, to protect children sexually from predatory adults. Children here refer to minors, i.e. ranging from newly-born to 17 years, 11 months and 29 days. At 18, the child becomes a major. To date, there is no law in India to protect those under 18 from paedophiles. The few cases being reported have been tried in adult courts under adult laws and timeframes. The Bill, when it becomes law, will change this.

Of the nine points that you say need urgent attention, which is the most important?

The Bill, bizarrely, introduces a clause that almost legalises child sexual abuse. The clause, paraphrased, says that should an adult sexually abuse a child between 16 and 18 years, it will be examined as if the child “consented”. Surreally, consent has not been taken from the real stakeholders on whether the consent age can be lowered from 18 to 16, thereby disenfranchising this entire age-group and future generations from legal protection against sexual abuse. The stakeholders can, must, and always have to be, those directly concerned.

Who are the stakeholders?

Parents and grandparents, who might also be working professionals like doctors, lawyers, psychiatrists, counsellors and even elected Members of Parliament and Assemblies whose informed insight should help shape the child's rights-space. Teachers and educationists. Young adults above 18. And those in 16-18 age group right now.

What qualifies as consent?

Here is how consent can be misconstrued if this clause is passed. A 16-year-old girl is being taught dance by an adult instructor. Like all perpetrators, he grooms her so that there will be no ongoing objection; slowly he moves in to perform several sexual acts with her. The onus to prove that she did not want “it” will be upon her. As it will on a 17-year-old-boy sodomised by an adult male known to him. Or even one whom he has recently met, and doesn't know that he has been snared into that part of the web looking for “fresh male meat”. For instance, in a chat-room on the Internet, then they meet in person and the boy is sodomised.

Is the age of consent 16 years worldwide?

It differs from country to country. In countries where it is 16, it is understood to mean “informed consent”. These nations also try to ensure that safeguards are in place for their young to fall back upon should they need immediate and sensitive legal assistance, starting with the police moving in to immediately stop the adult forcing himself/herself sexually upon the minor the moment there is a call for help, even if the minor falls in the consent-band. More so since child sex abusers rarely stop at one child/instance. Research indicates that adults can sexually abuse up to 35 children before being identified as paedophiles.

There is also a very real concern in developed nations about the appalling side-effects of child sexual abuse, which tend to criminalise the child and also carry over to future generations. Generally speaking, sexually abused children grow up misunderstanding their original sexuality; some become hyper-sexualised and are traumatised by their bisexuality. Boys can become wife-beaters, girls indifferent mothers. Some grow to become child sexual abusers themselves.

Who decides consent-age?

The stakeholders. Lowering of age requires a differently-worded and independent law; it cannot be a part of this Bill, which needs to be passed through both houses of Parliament after due discussion. Before this informed consent needs to be taken from the stakeholders by spelling out the pros and cons. Stakeholders can be informed through print, TV and radio ads to access a particular site on nic.in. Ministries have enough “advertising money”, which can also be more effectively utilised towards informing stakeholders who do not have access to nic.

With more Indian teenagers having sex at a younger age, what is the harm in lowering the age of consent?

First, don't confuse adults preying upon children sexually with teens experimenting between themselves. Second, there are overwhelming factors leading to too-early sexualisation of Indian teens that need to be addressed. What, then, would be the next lowering of age-band, from 16 to 13, then 10? Third and finally, it is a decision to be taken by the stakeholders, not by politicians alone. As the clause now stands it leaves our children at the mercy of adult sexual abusers.

Will existing laws on prostitution or their stricter implementation help reduce the number of children forced into the flesh trade?

Child prostitution has become pervasive. India ranks high internationally in child-sex-tourism and pornography. With the police cracking down in Thailand and Amsterdam, paedophiles have turned their attention to India. Children form a sickening chunk of the Rs. 40,000 crore commercial sex industry. Of this, 25 per cent of the child prostitutes are between 15 and 18 years of age; this is bound to increase should the “consent” age be decreased.

Given that 53 per cent of Indian children are subjected to sexual abuse, don't you think it is also important to educate children about sex?

Prevention is better than cure always, especially when it comes to child sexual abuse. The HRD ministry must formulate a graded module on sex education — schools can call it whatever they want if they don't want to use the word “sex” — for schools and colleges. This incremental information should be disseminated and each school/college can then apply it to their own cultural environment after discussion and with the active collaboration of their Parent-Teacher Associations. Teachers can conduct one interactive class per year (starting from primary going up to Class XII). The education-modules should include child sexual abuse but not be limited to it and expand age-appropriately to provide holistic information on the body, its rights and its responsibilities.

Would you say that if government reduces the consent age from 18 to 16 without consulting stakeholders, the most vulnerable will be mostly street children, young labour, and college freshers vis-à-vis ragging?

Well, yes and no. What about children who are equally vulnerable in middle and upper-class homes? Research shows that child sexual abuse cuts across class, money and religious lines. The statistics speak for themselves: 50 per cent of the children are sexually assaulted in their own homes. Perpetrators frequently “groom” the child to ensure that it will be compliant. To reduce the age of consent from 18 to 16 is to increase the risk. College-going call-girls and boy-toys/stud-boys would be seen as legally “consenting” when they give sex in exchange for money/drugs/better report cards et al, thereby legalising the use of a young body as barter.

This is the only Bill that, when it becomes law, will protect not only our current generation of children but every generation hereafter.

What can you do?

Readers can send their letters to the Rajya Sabha's committee currently examining the Bill, addressed to: Mr. Oscar Fernandes, Rajya Sabha MP, Head, Parliamentary Standing Committee, Human Resource Development, Rm 515, 5th floor, Parliament House Annexe, Delhi 110001.