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Mar 14, 2013 at 08:54am IST

Age of consent reduced from 18 to 16 in draft of anti-rape Bill

New Delhi: There is finally some headway in bringing India's tough new anti-rape law after much debate and differences within the Union Cabinet over provisions in the anti-rape draft bill. On Wednesday evening, the Empowered Group of Ministers led by Finance Minister P Chidambaram finalised changes to the draft and have reduced the age of consent for sex from 18 to 16 years again.

The Cabinet will now take up the revised draft for discussion on Thursday evening. The term sexual assault has also been replaced with rape, making the provision woman centric and gender specific. Under the revised draft, stalking and voyeurism have been made criminal offences. While stalking has been made a non-bailable offence, voyeurism is bailable conditionally.

The provisions for safeguarding against false complaints have been removed and sources say that for cases of sodomy of male or male child rape, the Prevention of Child Abuse Act will be amended. The government is calling for an all-party meet on Monday to take the Opposition on board with the bill. The Bill is expected to brought before Parliament on March 20.

"We have gone through every provision of the proposed bill and all issues have been resolved. Now the matter will go to Cabinet on Thursday and hopefully it will be passed on Thursday," Telecom Minister Kapil Sibal told reporters.

There have been many conflicting opinions on the new rape law and one of the main areas of conflict has been the lowering of the age of consent back to 16 as it was till 2012. During a debate on Face The Nation on CNN-IBN, Kavita Krishnan, Secretary, All India Progressive Women's Association (AIPWA), said, "You can teach people to behave responsibly in sexual matters, you must teach young people about their bodies, all of that. But the point is that you also have to respect a young girl's consent. If she has a boyfriend, and if they have, as very naturally often does happen, if they have consensual sex, will you call it a crime? That's the point."

To this, women's rights activist Rami Chhabra said, "You will call it delinquency." Responding to this, Kavita Krishnan added, "Why will you call it delinquency? Will you send the girl to jail? Will you send the boy to jail? You don't want your children to go to these observations homes, they are not good places.

Women and Child Development Minister Krishna Tirath had also been opposing any move to lower the age of consent. But Union Minister Kapil Sibal on Wednesday claimed all differences over the Bill had been sorted out.

The Bill will replace Criminal Laws Ordinance promulgated on February 3 in the wake of public outrage over the December 16 Delhi gangrape. The Ordinance has to be approved by Parliament before its recess from March 22, failing which it would lapse on April 4.

The GoM was set up in view of persisting differences among ministers on its provisions at the meeting of the Union Cabinet on Tuesday. However, considering the urgency of the matter, the GoM was asked to submit its report on Wednesday so that the Bill could be brought before the Cabinet on Thursday.

On the issue of stalking and voyeurism, some ministers were of the view that the provisions would be "prone to misuse" and should only be incorporated after putting in place sufficient safeguards, including harsh penalty for lodging false cases. Stalking and voyeurism were for the first time defined as criminal offences in the Ordinance.

Some parties like the Samajwadi Party have serious reservations on certain provisions of the ordinance claiming they are prone to misuse. Lengthy inter-ministerial consultations had taken place on the issue of lowering of the age of consent from 18 years to 16 with the Women and Child Development Ministry strongly opposing the move.

The bill retains a key provision of the ordinance under which if rape leads to death of the victim or leaves her in a vegetative state, it can also attract death penalty. The minimum punishment is 20 years in jail which may extend upto the "natural life" of the convict.

(With additional information from PTI)