REWARI, India -- India passed anti-rape legislation Thursday that included a controversial provision setting the age of sexual consent at 18.
Reformers argued the law, which was passed in a hurried response to public anger over the fatal mid-December rape of a 23-year old physiotherapy student, should set the age at 16 to prevent wrongful arrests in a changing society.
However, conservatives prevailed, fearful a lower age would encourage premarital sex and undermine Indian morality.
The wide-ranging new law also makes stalking, voyeurism, acid attacks and forcibly disrobing a woman explicit crimes for the first time, provides capital punishment for rapes leading to death and raises to 20 years from 10 the minimum sentence for gang rape and rapes committed by a police officer.
The law doesn’t address marital rape, rape committed by the armed forces or rape against men.
The statute, which takes effect once the president signs it, replaces an anti-rape ordinance that was to expire April 4.
"We have tried to bring in a strong law, which is pro-women and will act as a deterrent," Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde told lawmakers Thursday.
The age of consent was fixed at 16 from 1983 until February, when a stop-gap ordinance pushed it up to 18. “Takes Age of Consent Back 30 Years,” said a headline in the English-language DNA newspaper.
Critics say the higher age opens the way for abuses in a society where parents frequently file rape and kidnapping charges against boys who have consensual sex with their daughters, often leading to jail time for the boys or quickly arranged marriages for the girls to “protect their honor.”
In India, there’s often a disconnect between law and practice. The legal marriage age is 21 for men and 18 for women, for example, but 47% of Indian women marry younger than 18, according to a 2012 UN report, more frequently than in Afghanistan or Sudan.
“All these so-called traditional-value people have no problem when children are forced into marriage by their parents,” said Nandita Rao, an attorney. “But they want to criminalize consensual sex. It’s hypocritical.”