In India, consensual sex amongst teenagers is a crime

Trigger warning: discussion of sexual assault and self-harm

Karan Pramod Syrian, 19, an undertrial in the Indian city of Navi Mumbai, Maharashtra, died by suicide on 29, December 2022. The series of events that landed him in jail on charges of rape and kidnapping began when Syrian met a 16-year-old girl on Instagram. The two were in a relationship and then eloped, reports said. When the girl did not go back home, the parents filed a complaint with the police. 

Once the police tracked them down, the case graduated from a missing persons complaint to a heinous offence under India’s Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act. Syrian was arrested on charges of raping and kidnapping a minor girl, as per a report in Times of India

“This is a typical trajectory of these cases,” said Shruthi Ramakrishnan, Senior Legal Researcher, Enfold Proactive Health Trust, a Bengaluru-based nonprofit working on child rights in India. 

Teenagers often run away as parents are reluctant to accept the relationship; in many cases the girls may even be suffering from violence at home. Once the case is filed the girl is either sent back home or to a child care institution; the boy, regardless of age, becomes a criminal in the eyes of the law. 

Syrian’s death once again highlights the grave consequences of criminalisation of teenage romantic relationships. In 2012, India introduced the POCSO Act, a seminal child sexual abuse law. The law also raised the age of consent from 16 to 18 making consensual sexual activity amongst young people a criminal offence. A decade on, researchers, activists and social workers are highlighting the unintended, under-documented and less understood impacts of criminalisation of adolescent romantic relationships. 

One such impact has been putting young people through protracted criminal justice proceedings. POCSO cases need to be disposed of within a year, however it takes around 1.5 years on average, a study, published in November 2022, by the think-tank Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy has found. In many cases the proceedings drag on for as long as three years. An analysis of 230,730 POCSO cases across India revealed that for every one conviction in a POCSO case, there are three acquittals. 

“The delay in disposal doesn’t allow the child to move on with their life,” said Apoorva, a researcher and co-author of the study. During consultations with stakeholders, Apoorva found that one of the reasons for acquittals is that by raising the age of consent to 18 the law is unintentionally criminalising teenage romantic relationships. Many girls, who had entered the relationship with consent, do not want to file a case against the boy. They end up turning hostile in court leading to higher acquittals. 

For Syrian, who worked as a sweeper, his day in court never came. His body was found hanging from the ceiling fan in the Taloja Jail. The police registered a case of accidental death. 

While there is no data to understand the extent of romantic relationships filed under POCSO, according to an analysis an overwhelming 88% of child sexual abuse cases the victims were girls aged between 12 and 18. Experts find this worth looking into. 

Ramakrishnan, co-author of a qualitative study by Enfold examined POCSO judgements and found that romantic relationships accounted for close to one-fourth of over 7,560 judgements. Between 2016 and 2020, at least 1,715 cases in three Indian states were of young people in consensual relationships. The number–and thus the people affected by such criminalisation–could be a lot higher. 

“The way the law defines the age of consent is out of touch with our social reality,” Apoorva observed.

India is home to 253 million adolescents, the highest in the world. Around 10% of women in the age group of 25-49 years had their first sexual intercourse before the age of 15, and 39% had their first sexual intercourse before the age of 18 years, data from the latest round of National Family Health Survey show. 

Health services and rights of the child 

“The penal approach towards adolescent sexuality has impeded adolescents’ right to barrier-free access to sexual and reproductive health services," a policy brief by Enfold points out. It further notes that the fear of their partner being reported to the police deters girls from availing medical services from a professional and inadvertently pushes them towards unsafe abortions. 

“There is on ground evidence that access to reproductive and sexual health services is easily impacted by both the mandatory reporting of cases and when there is incrimination because of POCSO,” Ramakrishnan said. 

In 2021, a 17-year-old girl in a consensual relationship delivered a child at home by watching YouTube videos. In another, a teenager died after taking abortion pills prescribed by an Ayurvedic doctor. 

According to experts, criminalisation of teenage romantic relationships violates the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child by putting young people through the criminal justice system and thus robbing them of their formative years, denying adolescent girls agency by disregarding their consent and ignoring the biophysiological development of teenagers. Among other recommendations, they propose lowering the age of consent back to 16 years and comprehensive sexual as well as legal education.