In a landmark order, the Supreme Court of India has held that a husband having sex with his minor wife, that is, a girl less than 18 years of age, amounts to rape. The husband can now be punished if proven guilty of the offence.
The move is being hailed by a step in the right direction for child rights and criminalisation of marital rape. Here are a few more reasons why this crucial order matters.
Healthcare and personal liberty
The United Nations calls child marriages "an appalling violation of human rights and robs girls of their education, health and long-term prospects." And according to UNICEF figures, India has the second-highest number of child marriages in the world.
An estimated 47% of girls in the country are married before they turn 18. India is also among the nations that are part of the UNFPA-UNICEF Global Programme to Accelerate Action to End Child Marriage.
When children, especially girls, get married young, it hinders their overall growth and development. They are more likely to drop out of school thus hindering their chances of earning a livelihood. In a society steeped in patriarchy, these girls are also left disadvantaged in several other ways, including access to healthcare, and the right to excercise personal liberty and freedom.
Additionally, they are vulnerable to intimate partner violence, sexual abuse and bonded labour, are more exposed to HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases, and face health risks associated with early pregnancy and childbirth.
According to Claudia Garcia Moreno, a leading expert in violence against women, "Child marriage marks an abrupt and often violent introduction to sexual relations. The young girls are powerless to refuse sex and lack the resources or legal and social support to leave an abusive marriage."
A child bride remains a child after marriage
Through its order, the apex court read down an exception 2 in Section 375 rape law which protected a husband who had sexual relations with his wife who is aged between 15 and 18. The court called the exception, "arbitrary, discriminatory and capricious".
Describing as artificial the distinction between minor girl and a minor girl in child marriage, Justice Lokur said it was contrary to the philosophy of many statutes like Prohibition of Child Marriage Act and Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act (POCSO).
An opening to discuss marital rape on the whole?
A debate on whether or not marital rape should be criminalised in the country has been raging for a while now. Though the SC refused to say anything on the marital rape of adult women, this verdict is expected to have a prospective effect on it.
The central government thinks that criminalizing marital rape may destabilize the institution of marriage apart from being an easy tool for harassing husbands.
However, as this piece in The Hindu points out, "the law must uphold the bodily autonomy of all women, irrespective of their marital status."
Also read: Justice, misuse and proof: Why the legal debate on marital rape is wrongly set up
With IANS inputs