Sakuntala Dash

It is essential for adolescents to understand how their choices may affect their own well-being through their lives

Romantic relationship! It may happen to anyone with anybody at any age. However, teenagers are more prone to it as the romantic feelings among them are, more often than not, very blinding.  Such relationships can happen between two teenagers or a teenager with an adult.

First of all, adolescent age is an impressionable phase in life. So, there are two important aspects, the age and sexuality of adolescents. As they are dependent on their parents and the adolescent’s decision-making ability is not fully developed, they are actually not ready to take decisions over a long-term commitment, such as living together and marriage. During adolescence, romantic involvement may lead to different forms of violence resulting depression, anxiety, poorer psycho-social functioning, delinquency, etc.

When two adolescents are in a romantic relationship, the law is a barrier for them. A study by Enfold Proactive Health Trust and UNICEF-India reveals that between 2016 and 2020, 7064 judgments were found to be under the POCSO Act in states like Assam, Maharashtra, and West Bengal. From among these in about 1715 cases, the victims were within the group of ‘romantic’ relationship – means the victims were found having consensual relationship with the accused. Many ground-level reports, data, and experiences have shown a huge number of ‘consensual’ sexual relations among adolescents, and many adolescents are involved in a sexual relationship at a very early stage like in schools or in higher secondary schools. According to the National Family Health Survey-5 (NFHS-5-2019-21), 39% of women had sex first time before they attained 18 years, and 10% of women in the age group of 25-49 years had their first sexual intercourse before the age of 15.

It has been more than 10 years since the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO), Act came into force. The act was introduced to create a child-friendly space, secure the best interest and well-being of the children, and ensure their healthy growth and development.

Consensual teenage relationships are a social reality, but the POCSO Act does not recognise the possibility of consensual sexual activity among teenagers, or with older adolescents under the age of18. Section 2(d) of the POCSO Act defines a child as an individual under the age of 18. This has led to the suffering of many young couples between the ages of 16 and 18, who are in consensual and non-exploitative relationships.

As the law just overlooks the consent of the child, and since a genuine romantic relationship having mutual consent is often ignored, many are getting prosecuted under the law. Elopement of teenager’s cases booked under the POCSO Act. The consequence of it is that when the police complaints lodged by family members of the girls, the boys get arrested and thereafter their youthful life becomes troublesome under this act. This Act was meant to protect minors from sexual abuse but many social causes lead to criminalising consensual romantic relationships among adolescents. Very often social issues are also promoted to misuse of the law. In many incidents, adolescent boys and girls who have left their houses with mutual consent, are arrested under POCSO, particularly the boys after the girl’s parents lodge an FIR. The trouble gets worsened for the boys if the concerned girls decline their consent of elopement under the pressure of the family.

High Courts have raised the issue whether the POCSO Act is needed to regulate adolescent sexuality, and have recommended legal reform. Because of the FIR, the boy’s life is affected, and punishing the adolescent boy for a biological attraction or relationship with a minor girl was never the goal of the POCSO Act. The relationships among teenagers or with slightly older people were not unnatural or strange, rather a result of natural biological attraction, and recommended that the age of consent be reduced to 16 years. Section 2(d) of the POCSO in light of the consensual relationship among the minors interpreted, in cases of the consensual relationship among the minors the definition of child under section 2(d) can be redefined as 16 instead of 18 years and any consensual sex after the age of 16 can be excluded from the provision of the POCSO. Section 4 of the POCSO act prescribes a minimum of 7 years’ punishment for sexual offenses, however, these provisions should be excluded from these consensual relationships among minors.

Consensual teenage relationships are a social fact and during adolescence, many psychological and emotional developments occur in the children. Now it’s more common than ever before because of the vast exposure to digital content has the denting influence on our adolescents. As adolescents’ decision-making skill is underdeveloped and generally, they are under the pressure of parents and the community during this phase. In cases of romantic relations among adolescents our social and legal system should support them in taking the right decision at the right time.

‘ADVIKA – I am Unique’, an effort by the Government of Odisha is a praiseworthy step in this regard. On the other hand, sex education should also be in our curriculum of the teaching and learning process to manage the emotional, physical and social aspects of sexuality. It is essential to make adolescents understand as to how their choices affect their own well-being throughout their lives, and that of others. The need of the hour is to empower the adolescents to establish their knowledge, skills, attitudes, values of health, and well-being, and develop respectful social and sexual relationships.