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  • Many activists and campaign groups have welcomed the Supreme Court decision to protect children.

    Many activists and campaign groups have welcomed the Supreme Court decision to protect children. | Photo: Reuters

Child marriages were criminalized in 2006 but no amendment was made to penalise the marital rape of a girl.

India's top court has ruled that sexual intercourse with a bride under the age of 15 is rape.

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"This is a landmark judgement that corrects a historical wrong against girls. How could marriage be used as a criterion to discriminate against girls?" Vikram Srivastava, the founder of Independent Thought, one of the main petitioners in the case, told the BBC.

The new law eliminates a legal exemption by overriding an earlier clause that deemed having sexual intercourse between a husband and his wife of over 15 years of age permissible. Now, women under the age of 18 can file a case of marital rape within a period of one year from the time of the marriage.  

India's government has also said that child marriage poses "an obstacle to nearly every developmental goal: eradicating poverty and hunger; achieving universal primary education; promoting gender equality; protecting children's lives; and improving women's health."

Child marriages are common in India - 46 percent of married women between the ages 18 and 29 were married before they were 18 according to the National Family Health survey. Nearly 23 million women became brides when they were in their teens.

According to India Spend, a data journalism initiative, almost 12 million women in India were married at the age of 10. A vast majority of these women were illiterate and lived in rural areas. Sexual intercourse will a girl under the age of 18 is already considered as a criminal offense under the Indian penal code.

The top court has also expressed concern over mass child marriages which are also the norm in some parts of India.

Many young girls are married off during the spring Hindu festival of Akshay Tritiya each year.

Under the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, PCMA, enacted in 2006, child marriages were criminalized but no amendment was made to criminalise marital rape of a girl.

"Young girls are married in thousands in the country, and as Section 13 of the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act (PCMA) indicates, there is an auspicious day, Akshaya Trutiya, when mass child marriages are performed," the Justices M B Lokur and Deepak Gupta said in a statement.

"Such young girls are subjected to sexual intercourse regardless of their health, their ability to bear children and other adverse social, economic and psychological consequences."

Many activists and campaign groups have welcomed the Supreme Court decision, but are skeptical about the new law's implementation.

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