India’s Supreme Court comes down hard on child marriages, calls sex with a child bride rape

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By Boshika Gupta

On the International Day of the Girl Child on October 11, the Supreme Court in India took an important step in safeguarding the country’s minor girls. It ruled that sexual intercourse with a wife under the age of 18 constitutes rape. The act is punishable by an imprisonment term that could last for 10 years or even earn the convict a life term.

This move is significant as it now bans an exception in the penal code that was permitted until now, allowing a person to have sex with his wife if she is between 15 and 18 years old.  Human rights activists have particularly welcomed the move, explaining that this loophole was routinely used to traffic minor girls into the flesh trade within the country as well outside it.

“The verdict is a vindication of the demand being raised by child rights activists. The challenge of its effective implementation remains. We hope it revamps strategies to prevent and prohibit child marriage,”  Maya John, an activist from the Center for Struggling Women (CSW), an organization that fights for women’s rights, told Deutsche Welle.

Child marriage is more widespread than most realize.  Its presence has been observed in alarming numbers in a few countries where it still remains commonplace. The list includes Niger (which has the highest rate of child marriages at 76%), Guinea, South Sudan, Chad, India, Mali, Bangladesh, Burkina Faso and more.

There are many reasons for early marriage. The dominance of patriarchy and traditions, loopholes in the law, abject poverty, illiteracy and the need to protect family honor are major factors.  In Mali, for instance, many families give away their young girls, succumbing to early marriages to receive a dowry in return.  This is dangerous because child marriage in turn leads to severe complications such as death due to neonatal complications, HIV, domestic violence, depression and a feeling of hopelessness.

According to data from Reuters, 40% of married Indian women aged between 15 and 49 suffer domestic abuse and it targets a whopping 70% of child brides.  In a grim scenario like this one, a rule which prohibits men from engaging in sexual intercourse with underage wives was much needed.

However, it’s going to be extremely difficult to implement the law in reality.  It’s impossible to know what happens behind closed doors especially when a minor girl gets married with her parents’ permission. The odds will be stacked against her. She’ll most likely feel afraid and alone, hesitating to reach out to the police on her own.  Rural areas are the worst affected where two-thirds of the India’s population resides and outdated customs are still the norm.  What’s more, there’s gender discrimination even with child marriages as girls are more likely to be subjected to the practice.

The Supreme Court’s decision has also kick-started a debate about marital rape in India, where it is not considered a crime yet. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has fought back saying that criminalizing marital rape could negatively affect marriage as an institution and make men more vulnerable to harassment.

There’s a bit of hope on the horizon despite the challenges. For example, a girl in Rajasthan, Sushila Bishnoi, 19, worked with an activist to present evidence to the court against her underage marriage which occurred when she was only 12 years old. The court accepted her case, dissolving the marriage. “I wanted to study but my family and my in-laws wanted me to live with a drunkard,” she told AFP. “It was about life and death, and I chose to live.”

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