These days laws keep changing like fashion, what was fashionable in the 70s and 80s like the high rise hairstyle that was obsolete until recently has suddenly picked up a rage now. The big debate in India about redefining the juvenile criminals’ age from 18 to 16 was talked at length everywhere in the regional and national media along with the public ire and uproar so much that it forced the parliament to set up various legal expert panels and revise the anti-rape law on a fast track basis. But the supreme court of India upheld 18 as the juvenile age.
The fact is until the year 2000 the juvenile age for boys under the Indian juvenile justice act was 16years. The need to increase the juvenile age from 16 to 18 came to effect in conformation with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Child (UNCRC) a human rights treaty that was signed in 1992.
Earlier when there was no rehabilitation or reformation homes juvenile offenders received the same treatment as any adult criminal would this resulted in the juvenile emerging as a hardened criminal, many got abused by older adult criminals. Hence there was a need to carve separate laws, set up reformation homes and justice system for juvenile felons.
This UNCRC signed up with 193 countries came into being with its intent to define and protect child rights and to increase the child rights representation in all countries. It aimed to end children’s participation in military activities, prohibiting child-prostitution, child pornography, child labor, child abuse.
When countries like US have not signed this convention owing to their federal policies where each state has set different age to define the juvenile age what is the context of this convention in India a country so diverse in its societal structure with varied culture, practices, social norms with disparate economic statuses and varied upbringing?
Now let us understand the Indian scenario where children alone constitute 400 million of India’s population yet they are the most under represented and largely abused in the society. Although India has signed the international human rights treaty to care for its children preventing any kind of abuse and assures them social, educational, emotional, economic support to exercise their rights in the society, much of it is only in paper. Today child labor is rampant, child sexual abuse is growing dangerously minor girls forced into prostitution right under the nose of the police.
In India the legal age for marriage is 18 and 21 for girls and boys respectively, you are issued a driving license at 18, voting rights are given at 18 and as per the UNCRC treaty criminals under 18 years of age are sent to juvenile courts under juvenile justice act. Fair enough this norm is practiced largely in many nations.
On retrospection the norms defining a child that were made some decades back according to the then mindset, maturity of the children and social conditions of the society attributed physical maturity as criteria for defining juvenile age. This was substantiated when many researches also proved that adolescents think and act more impulsively than adults without contemplating the consequences of their words and actions.
In today’s internet age the gadget savvy children have a great deal of exposure to everything necessary and unnecessary. Even while I write this article and look up the internet for any statistical references I see many ads opening up from nowhere with scantily dressed female bodies selling various products and websites. This is the kind of exposure that today’s youth have. Information right or wrong, sought or unsought is just a click away. The mental development of children today is far more advanced than what it was 20-30 years back. It is not just the internet there are several other forums where they get awareness from like the DVDs, movies, wide variety of satellite TV channels even when you are watching a cartoon channel or news program there are advertisements playing that are not suitable for a child to view. Now what is good or bad for children to view is something that differs from family to family. The fact that many adolescents as young as 15 to 17 are breadwinners for their families in India who are well versed in handling their survival may well be in total contrast with another youth of the same age who is all protected, escorted to and fro from school.
Mental maturity of a person surpasses all logic that defines a child by way of physical age. Every individual is raised differently matures at different age and impacted by different societies, so to assess that all youngsters have the same maturity levels at a particular age is not pragmatic. Law should be applied depending on the intent and grievous nature of the crime. The debate about the age criteria cannot overlook the fact that a heinous crime is often committed by a sick mind disregarding the democratic right of another person.
Aftermath the Dec 16 Delhi gang rape case there has been a hue and cry by the public to lower the age of juvenile offenders from 18 to 16 as one of the key convict was 17 years old. Likewise even the child rights activists are seething with ire to uphold the current juvenile definition at 18. As a commoner I am aghast with the number game which makes no sense, a dreadful crime committed and an irreparable damage done which no child could dare to think, plan and execute.
Justice can be done only when intent of crime is assessed and definitely not the age and background of the criminal. Punishments awarded should take into account the mental maturity and intent of the crime. If a boy of 17 years can trick, rape, sadistically insert an iron rod and kill he is perfectly able to plan, manipulate, capture, instigate and murder which certainly is not becoming of a child’s traits or definition.
The rights activists battle it out back and forth for the criminals and reject the discussion to reduce the said juvenile age from 18 to 16 but are perfectly okay with the age for consensual sex being set at 16.
India is a country where the institution of marriage is most successful across the globe and regarded highly by most people. The Indian Government in its confusion over redefining rape laws instead of awarding tougher punishments for the guilty it has laughably set the age for consensual sex at 16 which not only makes more girls vulnerable to rape and cases being dismissed as a consented affair but also authenticates that yes the juveniles are mature enough to handle their lives and can consent to a sexual relationship outside of marriage. The child and women rights activists go berserk debating and condemning the idea to lower the juvenile criminals’ age only to save a rapist, they also make loud noises condemning the demand for lowering marriageable age to 16 calling it crude, backward and curtailment of freedom but choose to call it as modern and cool to consent for sex at 16 even if it were outside of marriage and attribute it to freedom of choice. I am certainly not advocating child marriage nor am I recommending live in relationships I am only igniting some thinking about the current happenings around us. If some adolescents choose to have an intimate relationship with consent it is completely their choice and responsibility. If this intimacy turns into intimidation then it is more of an organized rape. The fake rape charges if any must be investigated appropriately but to counter fake rape charges creating a new law setting the consensual age at 16, it is only going to increase the rape statistics where FIRs could easily be disposed as cases of consented sex. The new law does not in any way strengthen the anti-rape law instead it has given more horse power for vicious minds to rape and get away.
More amusing is the debate as all hell breaks loose when one of the key accused in the Delhi gang rape case has committed suicide. There is an enquiry ordered by the home minister to probe the death of a rapist who did not hesitate to move down the victim they had thrown out of the moving bus, human rights activists cry foul, media reports extensively about it but these human rights activists never pick up the nerve to fight for the victims why is it so that they always take the side of the convicts and mess up and hinder the emergence of tougher laws. They always talk about reforming the sick minds and criminals but why can’t they buck up and reform these sick minds even before a crime is committed. Today in India a 14 year old can easily buy cigarettes, alcohol, acid or poison across the counter, children are sent for household slavery with increasing child labor in many industries, hotels and factories, children are also trafficked in the begging mafia where even infants are not spared you can spot them all over at traffic signals, bus stands, railway stations, religious places, tourist spots as these are some hot business hubs for these abusers who run a business out of begging.
If these problems are addressed at the right time there wouldn’t be a need to play number games and wake up only when something dastardly happens.
The trial and conviction of a rape accused must be fast tracked with stringentl and tough punishments meted out it should make an example to others and impact the society in such a way that one should dread to even think of committing such a crime. The law should definitely instill some fear for the offenders by way of issuing the harshest punishment lacking which will only keep increasing the rape ratio.
If rape trials are not fast tracked and appropriate punishments are not awarded then justice is delayed and the message will not reach the masses we might wake up to another rape case where even girls as young as 5years are not spared. The need of the hour is to bring in laws that would deter a person from committing a crime.
The biggest reform would be to teach our children to graduate gracefully from adolescence to adulthood and create law abiding citizens which is possible only when basic requirements of children like food, education, health are taken care of along with ample emotional support.