India’s supreme court struck down a loophole that allowed men to have sex with a girl under the age of 18, as long as they were married.
In India, it is illegal for an adult to have sex with someone below the age of 18. However, this excluded married couples where the girl was older than 15-years-old.
46% of women between 18 and 29 were married before reaching legal adulthood. India has nearly 12 million children who were married before the age of 10, according to census data. Majority of them were girls from poor and rural families.
The supreme court struck the law down as it “encouraged child marriage.”
Previous Indian governments have defended the loophole, arguing that due to the social and economic conditions in the rural parts of the country, child marriage is an unfortunate reality.
Children are often married off when they are infants in many Indian communities. The consummation of the marriage is usually delayed until the girl reaches puberty, this is typically marked by her first period.
Mass child marriages are often performed on “auspicious” days such as the Akshaya Tritiya festival.
Activists around the country cheered Wednesday’s decision.
“A minor girl being abused by her husband will tell her mother: ‘I’m feeling pain. [Sex] is uncomfortable. Please help me,’” said activist Kriti Bharti. “But mothers say: ‘It’s your destiny. You are a female so you have to go through this.’”
Bharti acknowledged that court’s decisions would be difficult to enforce but could have long-lasting consequences. “From now on, a girl who is exploited can go to the police, can go to the justice system and say: ‘I am being abused,’” she said.
Marital rape is currently not recognised in India. The Delhi high court is currently hearing a challenge to the law. The Indian government argues against the change, saying it would “destabilise the institution of marriage” and put husbands at risk of “harassment”.