February 8, 2023

Summary of legislations to protect the married girl child from abuse

Parliament of India, enacted various legislation to protect the married girl child from abuse and for her safe care.

Protection of Human Rights Act, 1993

The Protection of Human Rights Act, 1993 defines human rights in Section 2(d) as meaning the rights relating to life, liberty, equality and dignity of the individual guaranteed by the Constitution or embodied in international covenants and enforceable by courts in India.

There can be no doubt that if a girl child is forced by her husband into sexual intercourse against her will or without her consent, it would amount to a violation of her human right to liberty or her dignity guaranteed by the Constitution or at least embodied in international conventions accepted by India such as the Convention on the Rights of the Child (the CRC) and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (the CEDAW).

Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005 (DV Act)

Section 3 of the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005 (for short the DV Act) provides that if the husband of a girl child harms or injures or endangers the health, safety, life, limb or well-being, whether mental or physical, of his wife including by causing physical abuse and sexual abuse, he would be liable to have a protection order issued against him and pay compensation to his wife.

Explanation I of Section defines sexual abuse as including any conduct of a sexual nature that abuses, humiliates, degrades or otherwise violates the dignity of a woman.

Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006 (PCMA)

One of the more important legislations on the subject of protective rights of children is the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006 (for short the PCMA). For the purposes of the PCMA, a child is a male who has not completed 21 years of age and a female who has not completed 18 years of age and a child marriage means a marriage to which either contracting party is a child.

Section 3 of the PCMA provides that a child marriage is voidable at the option of any one of the parties to the child marriage a child marriage is not void, but only voidable. Interestingly, and notwithstanding the fact that a child marriage is only voidable, Parliament has made a child marriage an offence and has provided punishments for contracting a child marriage.

For instance, Section 9 of the PCMA provides that any male adult above 18 years of age marrying a child shall be punishable with rigorous imprisonment which may extend to two years or with fine which may extend to one lakh rupees or with both.

Therefore, regardless of his age, a male is penalized under this section if he marries a girl child. Section 10 of the PCMA provides that whoever performs, conducts, directs or abets any child marriage shall be punishable with rigorous imprisonment which may extend to two years and shall be liable to fine which may extend to one lakh rupees;

Section 11 of the PCMA provides punishment for promoting or permitting solemnization of a child marriage; and finally Section 13 of the PCMA provides that the jurisdictional judicial officer may injunct the performance of a child marriage while Section 14 of the PCMA provides that any child marriage solemnized in violation of an injunction under Section 13 shall be void.

It is quite clear from the above that Parliament is not in favour of child marriages per se but is somewhat ambivalent about it. However, Parliament recognizes that although a child marriage is a criminal activity, the reality of life in India is that traditional child marriages do take place. Strangely, while prohibiting a child marriage and criminalizing it, a child marriage has not been declared void and what is worse, sexual intercourse within a child marriage is not rape under the IPC even though it is a punishable offence under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012.

Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012 (POCSO)

The Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012 (for short the POCSO Act) is an important statute. The Statement of Objects and Reasons necessitating the enactment of the POCSO Act makes a reference to data collected by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) which indicated an increase in sexual offences against children. The data collected by the NCRB was corroborated by the Study on Child Abuse: India 2007 conducted by the Ministry of Women and Child Development of the Government of India.

While the above Study focuses on child abuse, it does refer to the harmful traditional practice of child marriage and in this context adverts to child marriage as being a subtle form of violence against children. The Study notes that there is a realization that if issues of child marriage are not addressed, it would affect the overall progress of the country.

The above Study draws attention to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) to which India is a signatory. Article 16.2 thereof provides The betrothal and the marriage of a child shall have no legal effect, and all necessary action, including legislation, shall be taken to specify a minimum age for marriage and to make the registration of marriages in an official registry compulsory.

The above Study also makes a reference to gender equity to the effect that discrimination against girls results in child marriages and such an imbalance needs to be addressed by bringing about attitudinal changes in people regarding the value of the girl child.

Preamble to the POCSO

The Preamble to the POCSO Act states that it was enacted with reference to Article 15(3) of the Constitution. The Preamble recognizes that the best interest of a child should be secured, a child being defined under Section 2(d) as any person below the age of 18 years. In fact, securing the best interest of the child is an obligation cast upon the Government of India having acceded to the Convention on the Rights of the Child (the CRC).

The Preamble to the POCSO Act also recognizes that it is imperative that the law should operate in a manner that the best interest and well-being of the child are regarded as being of paramount importance at every stage, to ensure the healthy, physical, emotional, intellectual and social development.

India became a signatory to the CEDAW Convention on 30th July, 1980 (ratified on 9th July, 1993) but with a reservation to the extent of making registration of marriage compulsory stating that it is not practical in a vast country like India with its variety of customs, religions and level of literacy. Nevertheless, the Supreme Court in the case of Seema (Smt.) v. Ashwani Kumar, (2006) 2 SCC 578 directed the States and Central Government to notify Rules making registration of marriages compulsory. However, the same has not been implemented in full.

Finally, the Preamble also provides that sexual exploitation and sexual abuse of children are heinous crimes and need to be effectively addressed. This is directly in conflict with Exception 2 to Section 375 of the IPC which effectively provides that the sexual exploitation or sexual abuse of a girl child is not even a crime, let alone a heinous crime on the contrary, it is a perfectly legitimate activity if the sexual exploitation or sexual abuse of the girl child is by her husband.

Section 3 of the POCSO Act defines penetrative sexual assault. Clause (n) of Section 5 provides that if a person commits penetrative sexual assault with a child, then that person actually commits aggravated penetrative sexual assault if that person is related to the child, inter alia, through marriage. Therefore, if the husband of a girl child commits penetrative sexual assault on his wife, he actually commits aggravated penetrative sexual assault as defined in Section 5(n) of the POCSO Act which is punishable under Section 6 of the POCSO Act by a term of rigorous imprisonment of not less than ten years and which may extend to imprisonment for life and fine.

Section 42-A inserted in the POCSO Act by an amendment made on 3 rd February, 2013. This section reads:

42-A. Act not in derogation of any other law-

The provisions of this Act shall be in addition to and not in derogation of the provisions of any other law for the time being in force and, in case of any inconsistency, the provisions of this Act shall have overriding effect on the provisions of any such law to the extent of the inconsistency. The consequence of this amendment is that the provisions of the POCSO Act will override the provisions of any other law (including the IPC) to the extent of any inconsistency.’

Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2015 (JJ Act)

The JJ Act defines a child as a person who has not completed 18 years of age. A child in need of care and protection is defined in Section 2(14) of the JJ Act, inter alia, as a child who is at imminent risk of marriage before attaining the age of marriage and whose parents, family members, guardian and any other persons are likely to be responsible for solemnization of such marriage. Clearly a girl child below 18 years of age and who is sought to be married is a child in need of care and protection. She is therefore, required to be produced before a Child Welfare Committee constituted under Section 27 of the JJ Act so that she could be cared for, protected and appropriately rehabilitated or restored to society.

Brief summary of the existing legislations

 It is obvious from a brief survey of the various statutes referred to above that a child is a person below 18 years of age who is entitled to the protection of her human rights including the right to live with dignity; if she is unfortunately married while a child, she is protected from domestic violence, both physical and mental, as well as from physical and sexual abuse; if she is unfortunately married while a child, her marriage is in violation of the law and therefore an offence and such a marriage is voidable at her instance and the person marrying her is committing a punishable offence; the husband of the girl child would be committing aggravated penetrative sexual assault when he has sexual intercourse with her and is thereby committing a punishable offence under the POCSO Act.

All these child-friendly statutes are essential for the well-being of the girl child (whether married or not) and are protected by Article 15(3) of the Constitution. These child-friendly statutes also link child marriages and sexual intercourse with a girl child and draw attention to the adverse consequences of both.