Policing Adolescent Sexuality And Health Consequences

Policing Adolescent Sexuality And Health Consequences

In 2012, the government introduced a special law on child sexual abuse—‘Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act’—which while has bridged the gap of inadequate recognition of sexual abuse among children, especially boys, it has made all sexual contact under the age of 18 years a crime. Moreover, it has also made it mandatory for all citizens, public officials and also medical doctors to mandatorily report any sexual activity under the age of 18 years.

There are several problems and contradictions created by this law which poses serious dilemmas for doctors, those working with young people, counselors, sexual and reproductive health advocates and lawyers.

Young people often have consensual sexual relationships. Since there is a blanket criminalisation of all sex under this law, the parents of girls, police and doctors file a case of sexual assault when this comes to light. Many times the parents are against the relationship of their children, especially if they are inter-caste and inter-religious in nature and doctors and police have no choice but to file cases since they are obliged by the mandatory reporting clause in the law. All in all, young people are left with no say in this matter.

Whether in consensual sex or as a result of coercion, young people may not be in a position to report to law enforcement. In the context of coercive sex this may be because reporting puts them at greater risk to their life or liberty. However, in both cases they need healthcare such as safe abortion, emergency contraception, regular contraception such as condoms, oral pills etc, diagnosis and treatment of sexually transmitted infections, suicide prevention counseling and others.

The need to report to law enforcement, however, has a chilling effect on young people’s access to healthcare as well as reluctance on part of the medical fraternity to provide crucial services. This has led to young girls giving birth to babies that are not only unwanted but a serious mental health risk to them. Impact on young people includes harassment and over-charging by doctors, suicides by young people, forced marriages, need to petition the High Courts and Supreme Court with applications for an abortion, non-functioning of government programs for sexuality education and sexual health services among others. Both the blanket criminalization and stringent mandatory reporting without exercising any case by case judgement is extremely deleterious to young people’ lives.

On 14 December 2021 Oxfam India organised a National Roundtable on criminalized adolescent sexuality in collaboration with leading child and youth rights organisations HAQ: Centre for Child Rights and Mahila Jan Adhikar Samiti (MJAS). Advocate Vrinda Grover, Supreme Court Lawyer, Dr Shaibya Saldanha, Gynaecologist working with Enfold, Enakshi Ganguli and Bharti Ali, co-founders of HAQ, Indira Pancholi of MJAS and Amita Pitre, Lead Specialist, Oxfam India.

More dialogue and concrete steps would be required to bring these issues to the attention of decision makers and do sustained advocacy on the same. An immediate step we agreed in the consultation was to have a special meeting on the mandatory reporting clause and advocate for its judicious use and provisions for the same in law.

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