A married girl below 18 years of age "cannot be treated as a commodity having no say over her body" or the right to deny sex to her husband, the Supreme Court observed today.
The top court said there is a fundamental right to a girl child to "live a life with dignity" and expressed concern over the detrimental effects of early marriage, not only in terms of her physical and mental health, but also regarding nutrition, education, employability and general well-being.
"The discussion on the bodily integrity of a girl child and the reproductive choices available to her is important only to highlight that she cannot be treated as a commodity having no say over her body or someone who has no right to deny sexual intercourse to her husband.
"The human rights of a girl child are very much alive and kicking whether she is married or not and deserve recognition and acceptance," a bench of Justices M B Lokur and Deepak Gupta said.
It said "we must not and cannot forget the existence of Article 21 of the Constitution which gives a fundamental right to a girl child to live a life of dignity.
"The documentary material placed before us clearly suggests that an early marriage takes away the self esteem and confidence of a girl child and subjects her, in a sense, to sexual abuse. Under no circumstances can it be said that such a girl child lives a life of dignity."
The top court also said there could be a detrimental impact of early marriage on the child born out of it "who may be malnourished and may be required to live in an impoverished state due to a variety of factors."
"Should this traditional practice still continue? We do not think so and the sooner it is given up, it would be in the best interest of the girl child and for society as a whole," Justice Lokur said in his 70-page verdict.
In his separate but concurring judgement, Justice Gupta condemned child marriage and said it puts the girl's health in "jeopardy".
"When a girl is compelled to marry before she attains the age of 18 years, her health is put in serious jeopardy," the judge said, while referring to various reports on the effects of child marriages across India.
"The girl child is also twice as more likely to die in child birth than a grown up woman. The least that one would expect in such a situation, is that the State would not take the defence of tradition and sanctity of marriage in respect of girl child, which would be totally violative of Articles 14, 15 and 21 of the Constitution," the judge said.