LANDMARK DECISION

India’s supreme court has finally ruled that having sex with an underage wife counts as rape

Quartz india
Quartz india

India’s supreme court has marked a big step forward in the fight against the sexual exploitation of minors.

In a landmark ruling on Oct. 11, the country’s highest court declared that having sex with a wife who is under the age of 18 counts as rape, and is therefore a criminal act. Until now, an exception to Section 375 of the Indian Penal Code, which defines various circumstances of rape, protected men who engaged in sexual relations with women aged between 15 and 18, as long as they were married to them.

However, this exception left room for the cruel sexual exploitation of minors in India, which recorded the second-highest number of child marriages between 2000 and 2012, behind Bangladesh, according to UNICEF. The incidence of child marriage has been increasing in urban areas, perpetuated by a variety of factors, including poverty, a lack of education, and cultural norms.

The loophole has also encouraged the trafficking of young girls. In one particularly harrowing example, reported by Reuters earlier this week, underage girls in the southern city of Hyderabad were married off to visiting men from the Arabian Gulf states just for the duration of their stay, before being unceremoniously divorced. The few who travelled back with their husbands ended up in sexual slavery or domestic servitude, the report says.

While the supreme court on Oct. 11 refused to comment on marital rapes in general, its decision on child brides could have ramifications for the matter, which is being heard by the Delhi high court currently.

The Indian government, on its part, has maintained that criminalising sexual intercourse with child brides or even marital rape in general would threaten the institution of marriage. This despite the fact that a significant proportion of women in India are sexually abused by their husbands, besides being forced into performing sexual acts.

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