India’s Supreme Court has eliminated a law that allowed men to have sex with underage girls if they were married to them, an important step forward in eliminating sexual exploitation in that country.
According to The Guardian, it now qualifies as rape if men have sex with their wife if she’s under the age of 18, therefore making it a criminal act. Before the ruling, an exception in the law allowed sexual contact between a men and their underage wives as young as 15.
“We are left with absolutely no other option but to harmonise the system of laws relating to children,” Justice Madan Lokur said in the decision.
India had the second-highest rate of child marriages in the world between 2000 and 2012, second only to Bangladesh, according to UNICEF. An estimated 12 million Indian children under the age of 10 are married, with the majority of girls from poor, rural families.
While definitely a step in the right direction, India has a long way to go—the court failed to revoke an exception permitting marital rape, though legal proceedings contesting that loophole remain underway. The Indian government, for its part, holds that criminalizing intercourse with child brides would “threaten the institution of marriage.”
An additional difficulty is that experts say the new law may be difficult to enforce. Still, the activist Kriti Bharti told The Guardian that progress is undeniably being made. “From now on, a girl who is exploited can go to the police, can go to the justice system and say: ‘I am being abused,’” she said.