After SC order, time to halt all child marriages
Exception 2 to the rape law on sex with underage women (Sec. 375 IPC) remained on the statue books for 67 years, and no one thought if fit to remove it and bring it in line with the age of consent, that has been 18 for a while
In a landmark order earlier this week, the Supreme Court cracked the whip on child marriages, that are anyway illegal in India, by making the act of having sex with a child bride akin to rape, for which a husband is liable to face stringent penalties. While this ruling will apply only prospectively, yet it will affect thousands of child brides if they are still below 18, and couples may have to live separately until the bride attains the age of consent. A social evil like child marriage, which may have been a tradition in Indian society decades ago, still required the nation’s highest court to rule in a bid to get rid of it once and for all.
The ridiculously young age at which brides were given away earlier shows how our society was steeped in such obscurantist practices. That it hasn’t stopped despite being made an offence — the 2011 Census showed five million girls were married before 18 — indicates how far we must go as a society to recognise the obvious threat posed to the health of the bride and her children. Some of the blame goes to a patriarchal society, with domination of the male so high that it nullifies the progress women have made over the years. Custom, poverty, family honour, religious sanction and even downright commerce, as in the sale of brides to rich foreigners, are among the reasons why child brides aren’t as rare as they should be in this age.
Exception 2 to the rape law on sex with underage women (Section 375 IPC) remained on the statue books for 67 years, and no one thought if fit to remove it and bring it in line with the age of consent, that has been 18 for a while. An emboldened Supreme Court bench balked at nothing in its determination to sweep away the very basis of this jugglery of getting children married, usually at the cost of their higher education, by striking at the very root of the clause that protected grooms who had sex with underage wives. Sadly, this isn’t the norm just in rural areas, as statistics show a greater rise in urban underage marriages, leaving India in the same league as sub-Saharan Africa with high child marriages figures.
Given social inhibitions, it is moot how many complaints of rape will be filed. While taking child marriage head-on, the judges may have declined to look into the issue of marital rape, but in taking up this great social reform they have done signal service to society. It’s up to every Indian to accept the negative connotations of child marriages and abandon it completely. A nation capable of progressive thinking should not fear taking action that matches it.