What Is The Age Of Consent In India? Its Supreme Court Rules That Sex With Child Brides Is Rape

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India's Supreme Court handed down an order on Wednesday that women's rights advocates have hailed as a victory. Its highest court ruled that sex with a child bride in India is rape, a landmark decision canceling out the nation's disparate statutory laws to affirm that sets the legal age of consent at 18.

Officially, India's legal age of consent and marriage is 18, but according to the BBC, marital rape was not considered an offense thanks to a legal clause in India's rape law that allowed men to have sex with their wives as long as they older than 15. India's Supreme Court struck down the clause on Wednesday, ruling that girls under the age of 18 would be able to charge their husbands with rape, the BBC reported, if they lodged a complaint within one year of the incident.

The bench of justices reportedly stated that an underaged bride "cannot be treated as a commodity having no say over her body or someone who has no right to deny sexual intercourse to her husband."

The Supreme Court ruling comes after hearing a petition brought by Independent Thought, a nonprofit that has been campaigning for marital rape to be outlawed. During the hearing, the Indian government had pushed back hard against the petition, stating that criminalizing marital rape could "destabilize the institution of marriage" and put men at risk of being harassed by their wives. Government attorneys reportedly told the court, "What may appear to be marital rape to an individual wife, may not appear so to others."

With the Supreme Court's ruling on Wednesday, advocates hope that it dissuades the rampant practice of child marriage. Vikram Srivastava, the founder of and a lawyer for the nonprofit Independent Thought, told the Australia Broadcasting Corporation News that he was "very happy" with the judgment, adding that it boosted the national campaign fighting for rights and education of young girls in India.

But others concede that the ruling will be difficult to enforce. The BBC's Delhi correspondent, Geeta Pandey, told the network:

Although illegal in India, child marriage is a longstanding practice in many communities. In a 2016 report by The Wire, a site published by the Foundation for Independent Journalism, some 12 million children in India were married before they reached 10 years of age. According to the organization Girls Not Brides, India has the highest number of child brides in the world, with an estimated 47 percent of girls getting married before their 18th birthday.

The Hindustan Times reported that the Supreme Court called out the Indian government for failing to enforce the criminalization of child marriages across the country. Studies have shown that child brides face negative effects from being married off — often to much older men — at staggeringly young ages.

The Girls Not Brides organization noted that child brides are often "isolated," and they "frequently feel disempowered and are deprived of their fundamental rights to health, education and safety." Being a child bride also puts girls at a greater risk of becoming victims of domestic violence, as well as more likely to contract sexually transmitted diseases and experience complications during pregnancy and childbirth. Many also have little to no access to education and economic opportunities.

Advocates say that India's Supreme Court ruling outlawing marital rape is a step towards gaining more rights for young girls across the country. The question now is how swift its impact will be felt for millions of children in India.