NEW DELHI (THOMSON REUTERS FOUNDATION) - A ruling by India's top court criminalising sex with underage brides could prevent thousands of girls being trafficked and sold on the pretext of marriage, campaigners said on Thursday (Oct 12).
Speaking a day after the landmark ruling, they said that raising awareness about the court victory for children and enforcing the verdict were now the key to its success.
"For the longest time, traffickers have been using marriage with minors as an alibi to rape girls in the first instance, to break them, before selling them to pimps and brothel owners," said Adrian Phillips, an advocate from Justice and Care, which fights trafficking.
"This judgment, which criminalises intercourse with minors even in the garb of marriage, will be a huge deterrent for traffickers. We are extremely happy with the judgment."
India's Supreme Court on Wednesday struck down a decades-old clause in the country's rape laws permitting a man to have sex with his wife if she is aged 15 to 18 - ruling that it was rape, and therefore a criminal offence.
Anti-trafficking charities in India said the verdict should help protect girls from under-age sex - be it with a husband, trafficker or paying client - and so extend their childhood.
Almost 20,000 women and children were victims of human trafficking in India in 2016, a rise of nearly 25 percent from the previous year, according to government data.
Most come from impoverished villages, lured to India's towns and cities by traffickers who promise good jobs, then sell them into slave-like conditions.
Some end up as domestic workers, or are forced to work in small industries such as textile workshops, farming or are pushed into brothels where they are sexually exploited.
Often traffickers dupe girls into eloping with false promises of marriage, but end up raping them before handing them over to pimps, who sell them into sexual slavery.
This first rape, say campaigners, is a method to control the victim. By robbing girls of all dignity, it is easier to trap them in sex work where they are shamed into submission.
A CHILD IS A CHILD
Wednesday's verdict came after petitioners challenged the exemption in the country's rape laws allowing husbands to have sex with minor brides. They said it contradicted other laws which put the age of consent and age of marriage at 18.
The two-judge bench said there needed to be uniformity in legislation, adding that the clause not only discriminated between married and single girls, but that it was being used to traffic children under the guise of marriage.
Activists in the southern city of Hyderabad - where there have been reports of men from Gulf states visiting to "marry" teenage Muslim girls for sex during their stay before divorcing them - said the law would help stem this trend.
"In Muslim Personal Law, a girl can be married post-puberty but the judgment overrules this law," said Jamila Nishat, founder of Shaheen, a Hyderabad-based charity.
"Before they (husbands) would get a signature of the girl and her parents on the marriage certificate, and show it as the girl's consent. Now that will no longer be valid."
Muslim Personal Law is customary law which allows for Muslims in India to follow their own traditions in accordance with their religion, but activists say the rules are made up by men who have misinterpreted the Quran to subjugate women.
Campaigners, however, stressed the ruling, important as it was, would carry no weight unless word spread to the people most closely affected and its verdict was enforced by authorities.
"The order is definitely welcome. However, we are still in the teething stage as far as this issue is concerned," said lawyer Sudha Ramalingam, from the southern city of Chennai, who has been involved in rescuing many girls from early marriage.
"In a situation where child marriage has social approval, who is going to help the girl complain against her husband? No one, not even her close family, will help."