Even as the Law Commission recommended the government not to tinker with the age of consent of 18 years, this age in India has varied widely over a period of time, from 10 years in 1860 to 16 years for females till 2012.
The age of consent is the age at which a person is considered legally capable of agreeing to marriage or sexual intercourse.
This age is defined by statute and, at present, the age of consent for sexual intercourse is 18 years on the basis of POCSO Act.
However, prior to the POCSO Act in 2012, there was no age of consent defined separately for males and it was fixed by virtue of Section 375 of the IPC, which defines “rape”. For females, the age of consent was 16 years till 2012.
Rape being defined as a crime that can only be committed against a woman, the age of consent for sexual intercourse was only defined for a female, under which the age of consent is immaterial and any sexual activity amounts to statutory rape.
On the other hand, there was no age of consent for males. In fact, the term “child” itself was not defined either under the IPC or the General Clauses Act, 1897.
Further, the age of consent defined for a woman by virtue of Section 375 of the IPC defining “rape”, has had a chequered history with the age set at 10 years in 1860 to 18 years as it stands currently.
In the report submitted to the law ministry, the law panel gave a brief history of the age of consent in the country over the years.
In 1860, the age of consent for females stood at 10 years, the report said.
Thereafter, in 1891, the age of consent for a woman was raised to 12 years under Section 375 in the aftermath of the public outcry caused by the Phulmoni case.
Phulmoni was an 11-year-old girl who died of haemorrhage from a rupture of the vagina caused by her husband who had forced sex on her. The husband was held guilty of only causing grievous hurt by doing a rash or negligent act dangerous to life and sentenced to one year’s rigorous imprisonment.
Thereafter, the age of consent was raised to 14 years in 1925 and to 16 years in 1940.
Up till 2012, when the POCSO Act was enacted, the age of consent remained 16 years for females and there continued to be no age of consent defined for a male.
However, the minimum age of marriage was 18 years for women and 21 years for men.
The marital rape exception in Section 375 has also witnessed changes over the years starting from 10 years in 1860 to 15 years in 2012.
The Figure For Different Countries
The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child defines a child as any person below the age of 18 years. However, the age of consent ranges from 13 to 18 years globally. The age of consent in Canada was raised from 14 to 16 years only in 2008 in light of increased incidents of teenagers being lured online.
In the US, the age of consent varies by state. Under the federal law, the age of consent in the US is 18 years.
In many states, in addition to age of consent, there is a minimum age requirement and the criminality of sexual intercourse with an individual who is above the minimum age requirement and below the age of consent is dependent on the age differential between the two parties and/or the age of the defendant.
The age of consent in Australia varies between 16 to 17 years depending on the state or territory. The age of consent in Japan was 13 years till 2023 while the age of majority is 20 years and the minimum age for marriage for a man is 18 years and 16 for a woman.
In South Africa, the age of consent is 16 years even though a child has been defined as a person under the age of 18 years.
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