Laws intended to tackle child abuse are resulting in young men in consensual relationships being imprisoned. Activists argue a more nuanced approach is needed
Mani*, 21, began dating Noor*, 17, two years ago. They couldn’t see each other during the Covid lockdowns, but when restrictions began to ease, they would meet on the deserted banks of a canal in a small town in Tamil Nadu. The couple hoped to marry one day, but then Noor fell pregnant, and life turned into a nightmare.
Two months ago, Mani was charged with rape under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (Pocso) law. After 48 days in jail, he was released on bail. If convicted, he faces life imprisonment.
“I just want this to be over soon,” he says nervously, his eyes bloodshot from lack of sleep.
The Pocso law was introduced in India in 2012 to tackle rising child sexual abuse. Under the law, any sexual activity involving a person under 18 is illegal. It makes no allowances for sexual relationships between consenting young people, which child rights activists say is punitive and not the intention of the law.
Activists are now calling for the law to be clarified to allow for a more nuanced understanding of young people’s sexuality.
“Call it teenage romance, infatuation, sexual exploration or love, it’s illegal in India,” says Andrew Sesuraj, child rights activist and convenor of Tamil Nadu Child Rights Watch.