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.
Data shows that 47,335 cases were registered in 2019 under the law. Conviction rates the same year stood at 34.9%. Figures for 2020 have yet to be published, but media reports indicate that lockdown restrictions have led to a rise in cases filed under the Pocso Act. Activists say that young people faced increased scrutiny of their lives after the pandemic forced them to stay at home with family.
Although there is no data on the age of those charged under the law, activists believe that many of the accused are young men and teenage boys in consensual relationships with teenage girls.
Girls are usually regarded as victims, so are rarely charged under the law. They are often considered incapable of giving consent.
Activists say the law is often used by police and families to punish young people if they don’t approve of a relationship.
“A lot of cases are filed because the couple belong to different castes, classes or faiths,” says Sesuraj.
Swagata Raha, from Enfold Proactive Health Trust, a Bengaluru-based nonprofit organisation working on child rights, says: “There’s a lot of stigma around premarital sex, and people perceive this as a moral issue.” A girl’s virginity and chastity are matters of family and community “honour” in most of India, she adds.
But criminalising consenting relationships between youths can have a devastating impact on the lives of young people, who are often unaware of the law.
Cases can take years to come to trial: more than 90% of Pocso cases are waiting to be heard. Education is disrupted, careers are jeopardised and young people are stigmatised for the rest of their lives, regardless of whether they are convicted, Raha explains. Some teenagers are sent to children’s remand homes until their cases come to court.
Mani has already faced verbal abuse and has been stigmatised in his community.
The law can also deter sexually active teenage girls from seeking medical help in the event of pregnancies or sexually transmitted diseases, because it is compulsory for doctors to inform the police of all teenage pregnancies.
“Most cases take two to three years to reach trials. It is not uncommon that many couples [accused of underage sex] may even marry and have kids before that,” says Raha.
“What are we really doing in the name of protecting the child?” she says.
The call by campaigners to clarify the law was backed in January by a judge at the Chennai high court, Justice N Anand Venkatesh, who said: “Punishing an adolescent boy who enters into a relationship with a minor girl by treating him as an offender was never the objective of the Pocso Act.” An accused will have no defence if the criminal case is taken to its logical end, he noted.
Vithya Shankar, a rights advocate who has handled Pocso cases, observes that lower courts are greatly influenced by the public mood, sentiments and press coverage of such cases. The high courts instruct the district judges to convict as many as possible. “Many times it ends in injustice to the accused,” he says.
Noor is planning to keep their baby, but Mani’s fate lies in the hands of a judge. “I have caused too many problems for my family,” he says, his eyes welling up. “My crime is that I fell in love. We want to get married some day.”
* Names have been changed
Brexit: British Embassy launches survey on key issues affecting UK nationals in Spain | Brexit | International
The British Embassy in Madrid has launched a survey aimed at finding out how UK nationals in Spain have been affected by key issues, in particular, the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union, a process commonly known as Brexit.
The poll is for Britons who are full-time residents in Spain (not those with second homes) and are covered by the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement, i.e. they were officially registered in the country before December 31, 2020, when the so-called Transition Period came to an end.
Questions in the survey address issues such as access to healthcare and the uptake of the TIE residency cards, which were introduced as a replacement for green residency cards (either the credit-card size or the A4 sheet version, officially known as the Certificado de Registro de Ciudadano de la Unión).
The aim of the poll is to gather vital information on the experience of UK nationals living in Spain that will help the British Embassy provide feedback to Spanish authorities. The survey takes around 10 minutes to complete, and all answers are confidential.
Have you heard our Spanish news podcast ¿Qué? Each week we try to explain the curious, the under-reported and sometimes simply bizarre news stories that are often in the headlines in Spain.
‘The challenge for us now is drought, not war’: livelihoods of millions of Afghans at risk | Global development
The war in Afghanistan might be over but farmers in Kandahar’s Arghandab valley face a new enemy: drought.
It has hardly rained for two years, a drought so severe that some farmers are questioning how much longer they can live off the land.
Mohammed Rahim, 30, grew up working on a farm along with his father and grandfather in the Arghandab district of Afghanistan’s southern province. Famous for its fruit and vegetables, the area is known as the bread basket of Kandahar.
Like most in the valley, Rahim’s family relies solely on farming. “The fighting has just stopped. Peace has returned,” Rahim says. “But now we face another war: drought.
“Now we have to dig deep to pump water out of the land. It has been two years, there has been little rain and we have a drought here. I don’t know if our coming generations can rely on farming the way our ancestors used to do.”
Pir Mohammed, 60, has been a farmer for more than four decades. “Not long ago, there were water channels flowing into the farm and we were providing the remaining water to other farmers,” says Mohammed. “Before, the water was running after us, flowing everywhere – but now we are running after water.”
The water used to come free from the river but now the daily diesel cost for the water pump is at least 2,500 Afghani (£21).
“We don’t make any profit. We are in loss, rather. Instead, we are using our savings. But we don’t have any other option as we do it for survival,” says Mohammed. “However, the scarcity of water has affected the quality of crops as well.”
About 70% of Afghans live in rural areas and are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of drought.
Last week, Rein Paulsen, director of the Food and Agriculture Organization’s Office of Emergencies and Resilience, said severe drought was affecting 7.3 million people in 25 of the country’s 34 provinces.
He warned: “If agriculture collapses further, it will drive up malnutrition, increase displacement and worsen the humanitarian situation.”
Arghandab has been a favourite destination for farming because of the abundance of water and fertile lands. Neikh Mohammed, 40, left the Dand district of Kandahar to work in Arghandab in 2005. When he arrived he was amazed to see the greenery and pomegranate farms.
“It used to rain a lot here and we could not cross the river and come into our farms. We had a life with abundant water. But the past is another country now,” he says.
According to a report by the UN mission in Afghanistan, many local farmers were caught in the crossfire between the Taliban and the Afghan security forces. The Taliban carried out attacks from thick foliage on the farms, which provided a hiding place, ideal for an ambush.
“For the past 20 years, we did not have peace and could not work after dark in our farms. But now we can stay as long as we want without any fear,” says Neikh Mohammed. “Now the challenge is not just restoring peace but the drought and escalating cost of essential commodities.”
Farmers say they want support from international aid agencies and assistance from the new government headed by the Taliban to help them survive.
Pir Mohammed says: “The real challenge for us now is drought, not war. We need food, water, dams and infrastructure in our country. The world should invest in us and save us.”
[Ticker] US to lift Covid travel-ban on EU tourists
Fully vaccinated travellers from the EU and the UK will be let back into the US from “early November” onward, the White House said on Monday, ending an 18-month ban and prompting airline firms’ shares to climb. “This new international travel system follows the science to keep Americans … safe,” a US spokesman said. The EU recently recommended increased restrictions on US visitors, amid anger at lack of US reciprocity.
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