In a major boost for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer (LGBTIQ) community, the National Assembly yesterday supported the recommendation of its legislative committee to remove discriminatory sections on unnatural sex in the Penal Code.

This move is a huge step in decriminalising unnatural sex in the country.

The house agreed to the committee’s recommendation to repeal sections 213 and 214 in the Penal Code of Bhutan.

Section 213 states that a person is guilty of the offence of unnatural sex if the individual engages in sodomy or any other sexual conduct that is against the order of nature. The offence is a petty misdemeanour.

Finance minister Namgay Tshering first submitted the recommendation to the House during the second reading of the bill. He then submitted a written recommendation to the legislative committee to be included as part of its recommendation for amendment to the Code.

He said that section 213 on unnatural sex also needs to be amended reasoning that laws should change with time and was unconstitutional.

Some members yesterday said the house could replace it with definitions or specifics that determine unnatural sex.

The members will go to vote on Monday for the House to pass the Bill. The bill will then be sent to National Council for deliberations. If there are any differences, the bill will go to the joint sitting. Otherwise, the Bill will be submitted to His Majesty for Royal assent.

Members from the civil society organisations and LGBTIQ community watched intently from the public gallery as National Assembly members debated the recommendations to the Penal Code.

Some were seen discussing issues on the two sections and the age of consent issues with MPs during the recess along the corridors of the National Assembly.

The Speaker after encouraging MPs to speak at length asked the legislative committee to deliberate the recommendations on age of consent for consensual sex and fronting, among others.

Most members including the Prime Minister, Opposition Leader, and some female MPs, vehemently resisted reducing the age of consent to 16 years.

“It’s unconstitutional and will put the girls’ health under increased risk,” Lyonchhen Dr Lotay Tshering said.

The National Law Review Taskforce recommended reducing the age of consent for consensual sex to 16 years. The legislative committee first accepted the taskforce’s recommendation and submitted it to the house during the second reading.

The recommendation read: “A defendant shall be guilty of the offence of rape of a child above 12 years if the defendant commits any act of sexual intercourse against a child between ages of 12 to 16 years.”

The committee submitted two more recommendations on this section during the third reading yesterday.

“A defendant shall be guilty of the offence of rape of a child above 12 years if the defendant commits any act of sexual intercourse against a child between ages of 12 to 18. However, consensual sex between person of above 16 years shall not be deemed to be rape provided that their age difference is not more than three years.”

A committee member, Sangbaykha MP Dorji Wangmo did not support the recommendations. “Maintain the status quo.”

Opposition Leader Pema Gyamtsho (PhD) said, “Reducing the age of consent would not solve the problem.”  He said that the bigger issue was the penalty for those involved in consensual sex with minors and thinking broadly and reducing the penalty instead might reduce the problem.

In similar tone, Jomotshangkha-Martshala MP Norbu Wangzom said it was important to know that some have abused the provision and that young men had landed behind bars leaving teenage girls impregnated on their own. “There’re many problems because of this provision in the rural areas,” she said.

Some members said that reducing the age could be in conflict with international conventions including that on human and child rights. Others warned of impending dangers to girls.

Drametse-Ngatshang MP Ugyen Wangdi said there were situations where the two individuals lived together when aged 16 and 17 years.

“But it becomes a crime when either of them turns 18 and they can’t be together any more as it is illegal,” he said.  He suggested that the age difference between the two be kept at two so that such issues would not arise.

The house also directed the committee to review the recommendations on fronting be a felony of fourth degree and in addition to the cancellation of licenses, any benefits accrued or gained from fronting shall be seized or restituted to the government.

The committee will table the Bill in the house for adoption on June 10.

  Tshering Palden