A case that changed the history of consent laws in India

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Phulmoni Dasi

The world consists of 50% of women and there we talk about women empowerment. With half of the population being in control, women are not in minority then why is empowerment needed only for women?

Women not only in India but throughout the globe have been suppressed for ages. With time the conditions of women have changed but this fact is only partially true for countries like India. Here women are still considered below men despite challenging them in almost every field. Practices like honor killing, dowry, genital mutilation, rape, domestic violence, and child marriages are still a symbol of the ill condition of women in the nation.

Consent is a big word for the people of India, as it restricts the boundaries of sexual intimacy. Lucky are those born in the 21st century, that they have legal reforms for consent and rape, but little luck had those before us.

A 10-year-old was raped to death on her wedding night by her 30-years-old husband and it changed the history of consent laws forever.

The Phulmoni Dasi Rape Case inspired a series of national reforms in the country surrounding child marriages and consent

Phulmoni Dasi was only 10 years old when she was married to 30 years old Hari Mohan Mait in 1889. She was a small girl born in Bengal, India. She was wedded to Hari Mohan Mait when she turned 10. When her husband tried to consummate their wedding the same night, she died.

A child Marriage and subsequent rape resulted in the death of Phulmoni Dasi. The case in the colonial era is remembered as The Phulmoni Dasi Rape Case. This one incident ignited reforms across the country. It opened gates for communication around child marriages, age of consent, and marital rape. Once the case hit litigation in the Calcutta Sessions Court on 6 July 1890, it received countrywide attention.

The autopsy of Phulmoni Devi revealed that her organs were not developed, menstruation had not commenced and there were no signs of puberty except the single one of partially developed breasts. She had an underdeveloped vagina and uterus. She was found covered in the pool of blood beside the culprit alone in the room.

Despite the brutal details and crude reality, the culprit was not convicted of rape under the act introduced in the Indian Penal Court in 1860 that omits marital rape as rape. As the little girl was past the legal age of consent and married to the man, he was only convicted with 12 months of hard labor.

Phulmoni Dasi

In the mid of this case, another case got into the light where another girl refused to leave her home. Rukhmabai was wedded to 19-year-old Dadaji Bhikaji, it was a tradition in India that once the girl hit puberty she would leave her parents home to stay with her husband. When Rukhmabai turned 11 years old, she was asked to leave but she eventually denied it. In 1884, Bhikaji filed a case against Rukhmabai in the Bombay High Court for restitution of conjugal rights of a husband over his wife.

Her simple refusal along with the case of Phulmoni Devi triggered countrywide reforms and attention to how people view consensual rights in India. The poet and activist Behramji Malabari played a key role in bringing reforms to the country. Both the cases awoke the long slept legal system of India. Phulmoni Devi or Rukhmabai weren’t the only victims of child marriage, in fact, thousands of girls across the nation faced the same fate.

On 9 January 1891, Lord Lansdowne, the then Viceroy of India introduced a bill in front of the Council of India. The bill was called the “Age of Consent Bill” and sought to amend section Section 376 of IPC where the previous consensual age was 10 years old. The bill was passed and it change the consensual age from 10 to 12 years old. It also rectified that any person found having sexual intimacy with any girl of 12 or below, even if the perpetrator is the girl’s husband, would be charged with rape.

For the first time in the history of India, women enjoyed a little freedom over their own marriage and agency however the unfortunate custom of child marriages still prevails even in the 21st century.

Phulmoni Dasi

The Ill Reality of Child Marriages in India

According to the NCRB report, child marriages surged by 50 percent in 2020 compared to the previous year. The child marriages rate in the country is estimated to be 47%. The state of Bihar has the highest rate of child marriages.

One in 5 Indian men agreed to force their wives to sex. Almost 127 countries do not prohibit marital rape. One in three women are forced, beaten, or coerced sex. Though it goes unnoticed and unpunished, these issues do affect the female population of the world. The victim of sexual violence is 17% likely to give birth to low weight baby, twice as likely to bear abortion, and 1.5 times more likely to acquire HIV along with fighting mental disorders.

Article 14 in the Indian Penal Court ensures women the right to equality. But on the ground level, this article remains an illusion for the majority of women. People still continue to treat them abusively whether it be physical or mental. We have seen men abusing their daughters or wives publicly on the streets and the cases of domestic violence are enough to provide the indoor horror.

The streets of India still bear witness to the horrors of women’s safety and violence against them. Cases of rape are reported every hour and every 16 minutes one woman is raped. Seventy-seven rape cases were reported on an average every day in 2020, totaling 28,046 such incidents during the year. It’s a part of a new normal for the male population, however, for women, it still threatens them to go out alone, to wear what they want, or even watch what they speak.

True India requires great leaders of both genders, we require a balanced economy that is equal for men and women so that our kids can only hear stories of this evil.

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