India’s top court rules sex with an un­der­age wife is rape

Stabroek News - - WORLD NEWS -

NEW DELHI, (Reuters) - India’s top court on Wednesday ruled that a man is com­mit­ting rape if he en­gages in sex­ual in­ter­course with his wife who is aged be­tween 15 and 18, a land­mark de­ci­sion that will af­fect mil­lions of child brides.

The le­gal age of con­sent is 18 years. The law re­gards even con­sen­sual sex with a woman un­der 16 as rape, but an ex­cep­tion had been made for in­ter­course be­tween a man and his wife who is be­tween 15 and 18.

Mar­i­tal rape is not a crime in India, where the gov­ern­ment has said crim­i­nal­is­ing mar­i­tal rape could desta­balise mar­riages and make men vul­ner­a­ble to har­rass­ment by their wives.

The Supreme Court ruled the age of con­sent was 18 for “all pur­poses” after hear­ing a pe­ti­tion by In­de­pen­dent Thought, a non-profit group that sought to crim­i­nalise sex with un­der­aged wives.

“Sex­ual in­ter­course by a mar­ried man with their mi­nor wife be­low 18 years is rape,” the court said in its judg­ment, which was wel­comed by women’s rights cam­paign­ers.

“I am very happy with the supreme court judg­ment,” Vikram Sri­vas­tava, a lawyer for In­de­pen­dent Thought, told Reuters.

“The judg­ment gives a boost to the national cam­paign of ‘Beti bachao and beti pad­hao,’” he added, us­ing a Hindi phrase mean­ing ‘Save the girl child and ed­u­cate the girl child’.

The ad­di­tional solic­i­tor gen­eral, P.S. Narasimha, who rep­re­sented the gov­ern­ment, de­clined to com­ment.

Wednesday’s ver­dict would not be ap­plied ret­ro­spec­tively, how­ever, said the court, which based its con­clu­sions on India’s Child Mar­riage Pro­hi­bi­tion Act.

Though il­le­gal, child mar­riage is deeply rooted in India. Fac­tors such as poverty, weak law en­force­ment, pa­tri­ar­chal so­cial norms and con­cerns about fam­ily hon­our are of­ten blamed.

Mar­riages in India are con­sid­ered to in­volve a child if the woman is be­low 18 or the man younger than 21. Men both above and be­low the le­gal age may marry child brides.

India’s 2011 cen­sus showed child mar­riage had de­clined marginally from a decade ear­lier but more than 5 mil­lion girls were still mar­ried be­fore the le­gal age of 18.

More than a quar­ter of In­dian women be­tween 20 and 24 said they were mar­ried be­fore 18, and a fifth of men be­tween 25 and 29 said they mar­ried be­low the le­gal age, the National Com­mis­sion for the Pro­tec­tion of Child Rights and the char­ity Young Lives said in a re­cent re­port analysing the cen­sus data.

The num­ber of un­der­age brides has de­clined 0.3 per­cent in ru­ral ar­eas since 2001, but in ur­ban ar­eas it in­creased 0.7 per­cent, the re­port said.

The study, the first to break down India’s cen­sus data on child mar­riage, found that nearly one in four girls in ru­ral ar­eas and one in five in ur­ban ar­eas mar­ried be­fore 18.

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