CHENNAI: Twelve-year-old children will be legally permitted to have non-penetrative sex with children their age, according to a draft Protection of Children From Sexual Offences Bill, 2010, that has been sent to states by the ministry of women and child development for their views.

The Bill also seeks to introduce a gradation in the age of consensual non-penetrative sex (12-14 years and 14-16 years) against the existing age of consent for sex which is 16 years. It proposes that in case of the age group 12-14, the maximum age gap between partners should be two years. For the 14-16 group, the maximum gap should be three years.

The age of consent in the US is between 16 and 18 years, depending on the state they live in; in the UK it is 16. Spain has one of the lowest ages of consent, at 13 years.

While a senior official of the ministry of women and child development confirmed that the Bill has been sent to state governments, law minister Veerappa Moily said he was not aware of it. ``Twelve years is anyway not a proper age for a sexual act,`` he told TOI.

Section 3 of the proposed Bill lists under exceptions of unlawful sexual act with a child:

(i) Any consensual non-penetrative sexual act penalised by this chapter is not an offence when engaged in between two children who are both over 12 years of age and are either of the same age or whose ages are within two years of each other.

(ii) when engaged in between two persons who are both over 14 years of age and are either of the same age or whose ages are within three years of each other

The Bill will soon be sent to the cabinet, after which a parliamentary standing committee will scrutinise it. Suggestions and objections from the states will be considered then, said a senior official at the ministry of women and child development.

The law ministry too has been working on a similar Bill with an identical name, in which the age of consent is mentioned as 16 years, with no gradation as suggested by the new Bill. The circulation of two Bills with the same title has created confusion in the government.

Opinion on the minimum age are divided. Aparna Bhat, a Supreme Court lawyer who was part of a National Commission for Protection of Child Rights group that drafted the latest Bill said the gradation of age down to 12 years was to decriminalise sexual exploration by two children.

Under the existing law, if two 12-year-olds get physical and if one childs parent complains, the other can be pulled up by the Juvenile Justice Board. The panel felt such minor things should be decriminalised, she said.

Raaj Mangal, chairperson of Delhi Child Welfare Committee said the Bill could prove ``disastrous`` if it comes into effect. ``Twelve, given the mind and maturity of a child, is not an age to give consent, be it penetrative or non-penetrative sex. In the name of decriminalising, you can`t keep sexual acts between children out of the notice of the authorities,`` said Mangal.

Former CBI director RK Raghavan felt the attempt to draw a distinction between an act involving penetration and one not involving penetration will create confusion in the minds of investigators. ``Disputes regarding the age of the offender or the victim, which will be many, will dilute the objective of protecting children,`` he said.

Some others like Nina Nayak, chairperson of Karnataka State Commission for the protection of child rights, called the Bill ``absolutely unacceptable``. ``The Juvenile Justice Board is anyway lenient to children in conflict with law. Even if a minor rapes a minor, the child in conflict with law is just admonished and sent. There is no need of a new law to make sexual acts between children permissible,`` she said.