The landmark judgment by the Supreme Court striking down a law that allowed men to have sex with their minor wives has been welcomed by women’s activists with the hope that the court would take cognizance of marital rape as well.
The judgment was delivered on the International Day of the Girl Child and will go a long way in curbing trafficking and child marriages.
Welcoming the decision that safeguards the rights of girls, Poonam Muttreja, Executive Director, Population Foundation of India described it a timely and positive step in the right direction for the discourse on marital rape and the subject of consent. “In addition, I would urge the courts to take cognisance of the predicament of adult women who live in fear of rape of sexual violence at the hands of their spouse and in the security of her home,’’ she said.
Delivering the judgment that struck down exception 2 in Section 375 of the Indian Penal Code that legalised sex with wife of 15 years and above—though the age of consent and age of marriage is 18 years – the court said it was in conflict with the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012 and the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006. An adult having sex with someone below the age of 18 years is an offence under POCSO act.
However, the court did not make any remarks on criminalising rape in marriage which is being heard in a separate court at the moment.
The Census 2011 data suggested that there are over 13 million adolescent girls who are married between 10-19 years of age and 3.8 million were already mothers with 2 or more children during their adolescence.
Child marriages is an age old tradition in India and also often associated with economic status of the family as girls from economically weaker backgrounds are more likely to get married earlier. Child brides often lose out on education and live not so healthy lives because of early and frequent child bearing. Specific days such as Akshaya Tritiya are considered auspicious for marriages and mass marriages of children is solemnised on these days.
The Hindi heartland comprising Rajasthan, Bihar, Haryana, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh register the highest child marriages in the country.
“We are left with absolutely no other option but to harmonise the system of laws relating to children,” Justice Madan Lokur said in his decision.
“Young girls in the age group below 18 are still developing physically and mentally, and may not be in a position to make informed decisions and choices regarding their health and well-being. And while the trauma of forced sex for the minor is in itself an unfair burden, it could also jeopardise her health and that of the infant should an untimely and unwanted pregnancy occur. I wholeheartedly welcome the SC ruling that reiterates the need to safeguard the rights of girls and women, Ms Muttreja added.