Child bride rul­ing hailed

Un­der-18-year-olds will ben­e­fit

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ARULING by In­dia’s top court against hus­bands who have sex with their child brides will pro­tect mil­lions of girls and may pro­pel efforts to make mar­i­tal rape a crime in the con­ser­va­tive na­tion, ac­cord­ing to cam­paign­ers.

In­dia’s Supreme Court yes­ter­day struck down a decades-old clause in the coun­try’s rape laws, per­mit­ting a man to have sex with his wife if she is aged be­tween 15 to 18, rul­ing that it was rape, and there­fore a crim­i­nal of­fence. The age of con­sent is 18. Pe­ti­tion­ers chal­leng­ing the exemption in the rape laws said it was in con­tra­dic­tion with other leg­is­la­tion.

Cam­paign­ers hailed the ver­dict as land­mark.

“The judg­ment is a step for­ward in pro­tect­ing girls from abuse and ex­ploita­tion, ir­re­spec­tive of their mar­i­tal sta­tus,” said Divya Srini­vasan from Equal­ity Now, which pro­motes the rights of women and girls. “This pos­i­tive de­ci­sion by the Supreme Court will hope­fully en­cour­age the In­dian govern­ment to pro­tect all women by re­mov­ing the mar­i­tal rape exemption in all cases.”

Child mar­riage is il­le­gal in In­dia, but it re­mains wide­spread in parts of the coun­try. The 2011 cen­sus shows more than five mil­lion girls were wed be­fore the le­gal age of 18 – a mar­ginal de­crease from 2001.

Along with Niger, Guinea, South Su­dan, Chad and Burk­ina Faso, In­dia is one of the coun­tries with the high­est preva­lence of child mar­riage, de­spite moves to toughen penal­ties against the crime.

Poverty, weak law en­force­ment, pa­tri­ar­chal norms and con­cern about fam­ily hon­our are fac­tors con­tribut­ing to early mar­riage. But the prac­tice vi­o­lates child rights, cut­ting across ev­ery part of a women’s devel­op­ment and cre­at­ing a vi­cious cy­cle of mal­nu­tri­tion, poor health and ig­no­rance, ex­perts say.

In its rul­ing yes­ter­day, the two-judge bench said the exemption in the rape laws was un­con­sti­tu­tional and just be­cause it was tra­di­tion, this was not a rea­son for it to con­tinue.

“Ex­cep­tion in rape law is dis­crim­i­na­tory, capri­cious and ar­bi­trary. It vi­o­lates bod­ily in­tegrity of the girl child,” said the rul­ing. “If a man has in­ter­course with a wife who is be­low 18 years, it is an of­fence.”

Women’s rights cam­paign­ers hoped the rul­ing would spur na­tional de­bate in In­dia about out­law­ing mar­i­tal rape.

Mar­i­tal rape is not a crime in In­dia, and Prime Min­is­ter Naren­dra Modi’s right-wing govern­ment be­lieves crim­i­nal­is­ing mar­i­tal rape could desta­bilise mar­riages and make men vul­ner­a­ble to ha­rass­ment by their wives.

The govern­ment said in Au­gust In­dia should not blindly fol­low Western coun­tries that have crim­i­nalised mar­i­tal rape, as il­lit­er­acy and di­ver­sity make In­dia unique.

Ac­tivists say it is hard for vic­tims to speak out about sex­ual vi­o­lence by their hus­bands. As a re­sult, there are no ac­cu­rate fig­ures but more than 40% of women aged 15 to 49 ex­pe­ri­ence do­mes­tic vi­o­lence, ac­cord­ing to govern­ment data, ris­ing to 70% among child brides.

More than 50 coun­tries, in­clud­ing South Africa, crim­i­nalise mar­i­tal rape. – Reuters

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