A 17-and-a-half year old girl and Arjun Behera (27) fell in love and planned to convince their families to get married. Before they could do so, the girl discovered in May last she was pregnant. Things took turn for the worse after her grandparents, with whom she had been living since her parents’ death, learnt about her pregnancy and forced an abortion.
Since she was a minor, the hospital, as prescribed under the law, reported the case to the police and Behera was booked under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012 (POCSOA). The police arrested him immediately, and he had to spend five-and-a-half months in jail before being released on bail in October. Under POCSOA, the age of consent has been increased from 16 years to 18 years and it criminalises every sexual act involving minors, even if it is with “consent”.
After his release in October, Behera married the girl. The case against him, however, continues and the Vasai Sessions court is scheduled to pronounce its judgment on April 23. “She is my wife. We do not have any one to fall back on. I fear if the court does not take our relationship into consideration, I will be convicted,” he told The Indian Express.
As per section 4 of POCSOA, Behera, if proved guilty can be sentenced to seven years rigorous imprisonment.
After the abortion in May, the girl left her grandparents’ home. “I was under heavy medication. I had lost a lot of blood. When I gained consciousness, my aunt informed me the police had arrested Arjun. I left the house,” she told The Indian Express. After staying at the railway station and outside Virar police station for a couple of days, the girl went to Behera’s relatives’ place in Thane.
“They were very supportive. It gave me the energy to fight back. We somehow managed to get him (Behera) released on bail, but could not convince the police to withdraw the case,” says the girl, now studying in Class XII at a local college.
Her husband earns barely enough to run a family of two. “I have exhausted all my savings on this case. I hoped we would have a happily married life. I wanted my wife to be happy with me. Sadly, we have not spent a day without stress and fear,” he said.
In fact, in her testimony, the girl has shifted the blame on another person to save her husband. “I am desperate to save my husband. We never looked at our relationship as unlawful or criminal. If my husband is to be blamed, I am just as responsible,” she says.
The DNA report has tested positive and the couple’s lawyer fears this can be treated as a substantial evidence against Behera. “The court had concluded recording of evidence on February 11, but later called for the DNA report. The report supports the police’s case the child was Behera’s,” said Ramprasad Gupta, their lawyer.
Prior to POCSOA, cases of sexual offences were dealt under the Indian Penal Code, which considered 16 years as the age of consent. “The provisions are made to support the victim, and not victimise her further. If the court were to convict her husband, it would render her further vulnerable. It is critical that the government’s move to bring in much-needed reforms within the law of sexual crimes is more nuanced and sensitive to the needs of such vulnerable girls,” said Flavia Agnes, a legal scholar and women’s rights lawyer.