The Supreme Court of India’s landmark ruling that sex with wife below 18 years of age is rape is a watershed moment for girl rights in India. It deserves a standing ovation. With this ruling, the apex judicial entity has sent a loud and clear message to the government of India to urgently address its effete child marriage legislation. India, which has the highest number of child brides in the world as per Unicef, enacted the Prevention of Child Marriage Act (PCMA) in 2006 that replaced the earlier legislation of Child Marriage Restraint Act 1929. But the law has no teeth. In a routine mockery of it, many communities in the country carry on turning young girls into child brides inured by outdated cultural norms. What’s more, there are no punitive consequences for them because the onus of moving the courts lies with the child bride — a preposterous ask of an individual who has yet to be fully cognizant of her rights and desires. Compounding this issue is the Exception 2 to Section 375 (rape) of the Indian Penal Code, which permits the husband of a girl child — between 15 and 18 years of age — to have sexual intercourse, consensual or not, with her.
Numerous studies have established beyond contention the psychological fallout of underage marriage. For a girl who is not yet 18, marital sex is more often a coercion, and less a consensual participation, with the potential to destroy her ability to mature into a woman aware and empowered to make her own choices in life.
With the highest number of child brides in the world, it is time India dignified its girls with empowerment.