Earlier this week, India’s Supreme Court, the country’s highest court, declared that sexual intercourse with a wife who is between the ages of 15 and 18 years is now illegal under India’s Penal Code. The decision, which coincided with the U.N.’s International Day of the Girl, came after the Court heard a petition from the Indian NGO Independent Thought. The law requires girls to make a formal compliant and will only have a bearing on future child marriages that take place after October 11, 2017.
Following their decision, the Court told reporters that “human rights of a girl child are very much alive and kicking whether she is married or not and deserve recognition and acceptance.” This has been met by significant support and enthusiasm from NGOs, working both in the region and against child marriage. Equality Now, an international NGO, has told reporters that “the judgment is a step forward in protecting girls from abuse and exploitation, irrespective of their marital status.”
The decision is a remarkable victory for women’s rights in India, and is reflective of decades of work from feminist and activist groups in the country. Jagmati Sangwan, an activist and member of the All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA) told Al-Jazeera that the “decision will also work to impact child marriages” by making the illegal and exploitative process less appealing to would-be husbands of child brides.
The legislative change does, however, raise practical concerns, as it requires child brides to report the instances of rape within 12 months. This may prove problematic in-and-of itself, as it requires child brides, who are nearly always married with the consent of their parents, to have the courage to speak out and report their husbands. This takes place in the context of astonishing Indian domestic violence rates; with the World Health Organisation estimating that at least 35% of women in India are subject to physical or sexual violence from their husbands.
While child marriages are illegal in India, as the legal age of marriage is 18 for girls and 21 for men, they are still widely practiced throughout the country. UNICEF estimates that between 2008 and 2015, 18% of girls were married by 15 years old, and 47% of girls were married by the age of 18 – more than 230 million Indian women. AIDWA is thrilled with the decision in this matter, and think that it is a tremendous step forward, yet also feel it is important to remember that child marriages remain a big issue in India. The organisation said that “It has to be socioeconomic, literacy rate has to go up, empowerment must happen, economic standards must rise and education should be available for girls beyond the primary level. Only then can child marriage be prevented.”
This commendable decision by India’s Supreme Court marks an incredible step forward in the struggle for women and child rights in India. However, it is important to acknowledge that there is still work to be done. Fact of the matter is that child marriage in India remains a deeply rooted practice that can only be truly combatted through education, empowerment and social change.