India's Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that all instances of sex with underage girls, even those in a child marriage, is rape. While the national age of consent is 18, young girls forced into child marriage before that age have had little protection against statutory rape. Before Wednesday's ruling, there was inconsistency in the laws: legal consenting age was clear, but another clause stated that a man could have sex with a girl as young as 15 as long she was his wife. In its ruling on Wednesday, the country's high court stated, “Sexual intercourse with a girl below 18 years of age is rape regardless of whether she is married or not.”
While developed nations with lower (but not necessarily obsolete) instances of child marriage might balk at this being a necessary measure in 2017, it's important to note that any legislation putting constraints on child marriage is a MAJOR stride in India. The country ranks number one worldwide in child marriages: 47 percent of girls there are married by age 18.
While there has been a decrease in the number of girls marrying before age 15, the country has seen an uptick in marriages of girls 15 to 18. The Hindustan Times reports that a notable portion of child marriages—21 percent—are happening in a cluster of districts with a recent increase in underage marriage for both boys and girls. The legal marrying age is 18 for girls and 21 for boys, which further proves the inequities women of all ages face regarding marriage in India.
If this still seems shocking for 2017, consider this: one in four young women worldwide will be married during childhood. UNICEF reports that 750 million women alive today were married as children, a number they expect to be maintained, if not increased, at least through 2030. The organization has launched a Global Program to Accelerate Action to End Child Marriage, which targets 12 countries where young girls are at high risk of child marriage (India is one of them).
Although the number of child marriages is lower in the U.S., it still exists, and in some places is widespread. Legal loopholes continue to be available to those who engage in the practice—between 2000 and 2015, around 200,000 children were married on U.S. soil. Just this year, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed a law that raised the age of marital consent from 14 to 18. This was just after Texas Governor Greg Abbott signed a bill banning marriage before 18, in a state that saw by far the highest numbers of child marriage this century: nearly 35,000 between 2000 and 2010. In 2016, the U.S. and countries around the world agreed to support United Nations Sustainable Development Goal to end child marriage by 2030, but there is much work left to be done to achieve that.
Advocates of India's new legislation have long argued that the discrepancies encouraged child marriage and the abuse that often comes with it. Jagmati Sangwan, who pushes for women's rights there, said that while the practice is widespread, this could decrease the number of girls forced into abusive situations. "I think this ruling will get more girls to step forward and assert their rights,” she said. “There is so much violence against young women, even in their homes.”