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India's Supreme Court has made a ruling that could deter people from marrying off their young children. The court declared yesterday that if a husband has sex with his underage wife, that qualifies as rape. NPR's Julie McCarthy reports.
JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: Despite a law prohibiting child marriage, India has more child brides than anywhere in the world. The girl's family, often poor, can view it as lifting an economic burden. One analysis of the 2011 census states that 10 million girls were married before they turned 18 and nearly 800,000 before they reached 10. Social activist Ranjana Kumari says they face a lifetime of disadvantages and lost opportunity.
RANJANA KUMARI: Girls lose opportunity to get education. They lose opportunity to get employment. Their bodies are not fit to produce children. They have multiple children. Their bodies become very big. They are sick. Every which way the girls suffer.
MCCARTHY: Various statutes protect India's children from sexual exploitation. And consent is not an issue where sex with a minor is concerned. But one big vulnerability remained for child brides. A legal exception absolved husbands of rape charges, even if he had sexual relations with an underage wife. Wednesday's judgment closed that loophole. The court said sexual intercourse with a young girl below the age of 18 was rape whether she was married or not. Any distinction, the court said, was arbitrary and discriminatory and not in the best interests of the girl child. The court slammed successive governments for not removing the exception. Kumari, who directs the Centre for Social Research, says politicians have helped perpetrate child marriage.
KUMARI: They go and attend these marriages. They go and bless the bride and the groom. They say they can’t annoy the communities, they can’t annoy the people - this is a practice they have to participate in. So for their own advantages to get votes from those communities, they go and encourage child marriage.
MCCARTHY: The court was unsparing as it declared sex with a child bride to be rape. The justices said it could degrade and humiliate a young girl, destroy her entire psychology and dwarf her whole personality. Vikram Srivastava, the main petitioner, said India's child brides were often trafficked to other countries and said the ruling sends a powerful signal to men looking for adolescent brides.
VIKRAM SRIVASTAVA: A message has been given to them that if you want to marry a young girl, you are now not protected. Be ready for the consequences.
MCCARTHY: Julie McCarthy, NPR News, New Delhi.
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