CRIMINALISING MARITAL RAPE – WILL IT STOP CHILD MARRIAGES?

I wholeheartedly welcome the recent Supreme Court of India’s ruling that sex with a minor wife will be considered an act of rape. This new law strengthens the Child Marriage Prohibition and Protection of Children from Sexual Offenses Acts, and include rape under wedlock under the child protection laws as minors do not have the right to consent. I am really pleased to know that India has already benefitted from this law and the first case of a victim of child marriage has registered charges against her spouse.

According to the new law, the groom will be committing rape if he engages in sexual intercourse with his wife who is aged between 15 and 18. “Sexual intercourse by a married man with their minor wife below 18 years is rape,” the court had said in its judgment.

The legal age of consent in India, like many other countries of the world, is 18 years, and while many perceive this as a problem confined to developing countries owing to widespread poverty, illiteracy, social backwardness; child marriage is a complex issue and cuts across regions, religions and cultures. It’s a global problem that finds its roots deeply embedded in the United Kingdom and the United States, too.

The UK Home Office estimated that between 5,000 and 8,000 people in the UK are at risk of being forced into marriage every year because although the official legal age for marriage in England, Wales and Northern Ireland is 18, children can marry from 16 with parental consent. In some communities across the UK, this can result in forced child marriage whereby parents can consent on behalf of their children. In Scotland, the legal age for marriage is 16.

A Bill to rectify this had passed through the House of Lords in 2016. However, it couldn’t proceed to the House of Commons as there was no more room for Private Members Bills. Baroness Jenny Tonge, former Liberal Democrat MP, is supporting this process. The Marriage and Civil Partnership (Minimum Age) in the UK Private Member’s Bill proposes that the parental consent clause be removed from the law so that 18 is the only legal age for marriage and civil partnership.

In the United States, 25 states do not have an absolute minimum age set by statute and this age varies between 13 and 17. Individuals aged 18 have a right to marriage, with two States being exceptions – Nebraska, where the age is 19 and Mississippi, where its 21, all the states allow minors to marry in certain circumstances such as parental and judicial consent, pregnancy, or a combination of these situations.

Under these circumstances, the Supreme Court ruling in India is a true milestone judgement, and I look forward to child brides in India benefiting from it, with the tougher laws eventually putting a stop to child marriages.