In the absence of clearly defined provisions in the penal code of Bhutan on the issue of consensual sex coupled with inadequate public education on the subject, many innocent men have been robbed of nine precious years of their life in Bhutan over the past years. While the penal code defines the age of consent for marriage as 18, there is no enough public awareness especially in the rural communities on the existence of such laws in the country. As a result, many people still believe that it is alright to engage in consensual sex or get married before they are 18 years of age. If the concerned authorities look into the marriage records of the entire Bhutanese population, I am sure that so many fathers and husbands would go to prison for nine years on charges of rape although they have married with consent from their partners and their families.
The consensual marriage amongst teenagers is not new in our society. Until few decades ago, it was a popular culture in practice that the moment children hit puberty or reach mid-teens, their parents would start thinking about their future. Although the direct family pressure to get married had been very low in Bhutan, most teenagers chose love-marriages which the parents readily accepted. There are many people in my wife’s village who have got married when they were teens and accepted by their families based on the popular culture and tradition of the society. Moreover, I think our social life has been significantly influenced by the popular belief that early marriage would bless you with children early and that they would benefit you far before you are old. We have a popular proverb in Dzongkha “Jigten machhi, damchhoe maha” which means that marriage should never be delayed and the practice of Dharma must never be hurried. Perhaps because of such popular beliefs, people in the rural communities are still of opinion that marrying early is not a big concern as long as the families and the society accept it.
But before the law, it’s a crime that can drag men to jail for nine years, no matter whether it’s committed with consent or not. The clause in the penal code of Bhutan that defines the age of consent is so rigid that it does not take into consideration the actual circumstances that could have contributed to such affairs. A couple of years ago, an 18-year-old boy in Sibsoo who was working as a domestic helper for a family was convicted of dating a 14-year-old girl and was sentenced to nine years in prison on charges of rape as accused by the girl’s father. According to people in the village, the boy was definitely not the first guy to have consensual sex with the girl but he was the most unlucky among her numerous boyfriends because even after he was taken to jail, she was found regularly dating other boys in the village while the poor boy was dragged to Samtse jail to serve his term for the crime which he had not initiated. Likewise, the Gelephu Dungkhag court in 2014 sentenced a 20-year-old man to nine years in prison for marrying a 16-year-old girl despite the girl’s plea that it was consensual. The girl had to even lie that she was 18 to help her boyfriend from getting criminalized. But despite all her efforts, she could not save her boyfriend from going to jail. What is more shocking is that there was a recent article on Kuensel about a 24-year-old man being charged with rape and sentenced to nine years in jail for having consensual sex with an 18-year-old girl in Thimphu. I am just wondering why the court, despite being convinced that it was a consensual sex and that the girl was 18, convicted the man based on the accusations made by the girl’s brother.
The above incidents highlight the need for the clearly defined provisions in the penal code of Bhutan on consensual sex because as of now, the law always puts men at the losing end regardless of the social realities on the ground and punish them for second-degree felony. However, if it’s a rape, then it’s a crime we cannot afford to turn a blind eye to. As highlighted in this article on Kuensel, the laws must be strict to deter crimes and we must respect them, but when it comes to consensual sex with girls aged 16-18, I feel there are some loopholes in the law which some people seem to be taking advantage of. I feel our penal code must be amended to include well-spelled provisions on this issue in order to enable the law enforcement and judiciary to deliver absolute justice to the public in the society. I believe that men cannot be always the culprits because even girls can also lure them to such acts at times. But as of now, there is no consideration of such possibilities in our justice system. So until we have appropriate provisions in the penal code on this issue, it is highly important for our people to remain informed of the existence of such laws in the country so that they would not blindly slip off into such pitfalls and ruin their life. This directly calls for the concerned agencies to educate the public on such laws regularly. We must all remember that ignorance of the existence of any particular law can never be an excuse before the court of law although the ignorance of the government to educate the public on the existence of such laws in advance can be an excuse.