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Not by law alone

Editorial |

“Landmark” is a term much overused in respect of judicial pronouncements. While there can be no undermining the significance of the Supreme Court’s junking an unacceptable exception in the law on rape (Section 375 of the IPC) that permitted sexual relations between a man and his minor wife, the real “target” has to be an end to the abhorrent practice of child marriage.

And that target will not be achieved only by the much-acclaimed verdict on Wednesday: so it would be preferable to describe it as a “milestone” rather than a “landmark”. For, in essence, what the order from Justices Madan B Lokur and Deepak Gupta did was to bring uniformity to a range of laws pertaining to the age of majority in women ~ the scrapping of an obnoxious exception being a welcome spin-off.

“Human rights of a girl child are very much alive and kicking whether she is married or not, and deserve recognition and acceptance”, the court emphasised. And it continued that “a child remains a child whether she is described as a street child or a surrendered child…. similarly a child remains a child whether she is a married child or an unmarried child or a divorced child or a separated or widowed child…” Their Lordships wondered how Parliament could accept that decades-old disparity between a married or unmarried girl child ~ beyond the court complex others wondered how the judiciary had lived with that disparity, and were not impressed by the contention that the court was not delving into the question of marital rape because it had not been raised in the petitions upon which it was adjudicating.

While applauding the court for rectifying a long-standing malaise, there can be no ducking the reality that social evils cannot be eliminated by judicial action. The status of marriages with underaged girls now comes into question ~ will the “couples” be required to separate? The possibility of “third parties” using Wednesday’s order for exploitative purposes is also being mentioned.

The government had not favoured the judicial action, it has merely stated that it will abide by the order. Does that preclude the launching of a state-backed campaign to eradicate the practice of child marriages that is “traditional”, to put it mildly? Social reformation requires much public support ~ sati and triple talaq were effectively countered not merely by judicial action but by matching social action.

The move against dowry has not met with similar success because many young men, and their families, continue to demand it. Child marriage is something nobody openly condones, but official figures suggest 46 per cent of young women were married before they were 18 years of age, and the number of child brides in the country is estimated at 23 million ~ such numbers militate against judicial remedy without adequate social back-up.