The Union Cabinet will not review the new rape laws drafted by the government today, with ministries at odds over a recommendation on the lowering of the age of consent.
The Home Ministry has suggested, in the Cabinet note it has drafted, that the age of consent be lowered from 18 to 16. The Law Ministry, sources said, wants it lowered to below 16. But there are others who have argued that even 18 to 16 should not be done. Sexual intercourse under the age of consent is considered statutory rape.
A law approved last year to protect children from sexual abuse had fixed the age of consent at 18. (Should age of consent be lowered? Vote here)
Those who want it lowered argue that it will stop the criminalisation of teen sex and also that the police and parents can then be stopped from abusing the law to harass young couples who decide to marry against their wishes. They suggest a nuanced, layered law rather than a blanket one.
Those who oppose lowering the age of consent say this will weaken the fight against child abuse and could encourage human trafficking and child marriages. Their argument is that if the legal age to marry is 18, then the legal age for sexual intercourse cannot be 16. There are also fears that teen pregnancies and abortions will increase, giving rise to health risks.
The Home Ministry will now revisit its proposal and take a final decision. And the Cabinet, sources said, might then discuss and clear the proposal next week. The government has reportedly been working overtime to ensure that it brings the proposed tougher laws on crime against women for Parliament's approval in this session as the Ordinance that it promulgated last month will lapse with the end of the Budget session. The fresh Bill will replace the ordinance.
Apart from the age of consent, the note that the Home Ministry has drafted suggests some more amendments to the government's ordinance. It has reintroduced the word "rape" instead of sexual assault, which the Verma Commission, set up to draft new laws on crime against women, had recommended using as one with much wider definition.
The ministry has, however, gone with the government's decision to reject marital rape as a criminal offense, and also rejected the Verma Commission's suggestion that those in the armed forces accused of rape be brought under the ambit of criminal law; the government says this needs wider consultations.
It has also endorsed the government's decision to introduce the death penalty for the most extreme rape cases. The Verma Commission had suggested that life imprisonment be used for cases where women die as a result of sexual assault.
The government had promulgated the new ordinance on February 3, based largely on the recommendations of the three-member Verma commission, headed by Justice JS Verma, which was set up after public outrage over the brutal gang-rape of a medical student in a moving bus in Delhi in December last.