The Supreme Court on Wednesday criminalised sex with a minor wife aged between 15 and 18 years, saying the exception in the rape law was arbitrary and violative of the Constitution.
Section 375 of the IPC, which defines the offence of rape, has an exception clause that says intercourse or sexual act by a man with his wife, not below 15 years, is not rape. However, the age of consent is 18 years.
This comes as a major relief in the wake of the steadily increasing number of cases registered under the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006. The disturbing trajectory has seen an upward growth with 60 cases registered in 2010 to 293 in 2015. There was a 4.6 percent increase in 2015 as compared to 2014 when 280 cases were registered.
As per the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data, Tamil Nadu has reported the maximum number of crimes in 2015 with 77 reported incidents. This was followed by West Bengal, which recorded 40 cases.
Five states from South India — Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala — saw a combined 139 cases of child marriage in 2014, as per the NCRB data. This accounts for nearly half the total number of cases reported in the country that year (280 instances).
Deccan Herald reported that Women and Child Ministry had acknowledged that data shows 43 percent of women aged between 20 and 24 years were married before the age of 18 years.
The Ministry of Women and Child Development said that the reasons for child marriage are complex and it is a mindset problem, which considers girl child as a burden.
According to a UN report, India has the second-highest number of child marriages. “Girls with no education are 5.5 times more likely to marry or enter into a union as those with at least 10 years of education,” the UN report said.
A bench comprising Justice Madan B Lokur and Deepak Gupta also expressed concern over the prevalent practice of child marriage in the country during the Wednesday ruling and said that social justice laws were not implemented with the spirit with which they have been enacted by Parliament.
The court had earlier reserved the verdict while questioning the Centre how the Parliament could create an exception in law declaring that intercourse or a sexual act by a man with his wife, aged between 15 and less than 18 years, is not rape when the age of consent is 18.
The apex court had also observed that child marriage cannot go on like this just because this illegal practice was assumed to be legal and has been going on for ages.