*Subheading: Dilution of Statutory Rape Concept Raises Concerns of Encouraging Child Marriages*
In a recent legal ruling that has sparked widespread debate, Nepal’s Supreme Court has rendered a decision that has significant implications for both child marriages and the understanding of statutory rape. The apex court’s verdict involved an adult man who had wed a minor girl and engaged in sexual relations with her. Surprisingly, the court cleared the man of rape and kidnapping charges, instead considering his offense as only a case of child marriage.
The case involved a male adult who had married a girl not yet 16 years old, and the two had engaged in a sexual relationship. The high court had initially sentenced the man to 11 years in prison for his actions. However, the Supreme Court overturned this decision, imposing a reduced penalty of six months in jail and a fine of 10,000 Nepali rupees ($75).
This ruling has generated significant concern due to its potential to dilute the legal concept of statutory rape. Statutory rape, a cornerstone of Nepal’s criminal code, dictates that an adult engaging in sexual activity with a minor is liable for rape, regardless of whether the act was consensual. Shockingly, the Supreme Court’s ruling in this case negates the application of statutory rape, citing the fact that the couple was married.
The woman involved in the case, who was a minor at the time of her marriage, testified that she and the man were in love and had chosen to marry. Despite their young ages, the court seemed to accept their reasoning, concluding that the man could not be held accountable for crimes such as kidnapping or rape. While some hail this judgment as a progressive stance favoring love over strict legalities, it is essential to consider the potential implications of such a decision.
By asserting that sexual relations between the couple did not qualify as rape due to their marital status, the court blurs the line between adult and child. This is particularly ironic given that child marriage itself is outlawed. Worse yet, this verdict could inadvertently incentivize more child marriages by suggesting that they could lead to reduced punishments for offenses like statutory rape. This is particularly concerning in a nation where a staggering 38 percent of women between 20 and 49 years old were married before the age of 18.
The court’s decision starkly contradicts the very reasons children are safeguarded from making significant decisions such as voting, signing contracts, working, enlisting in the military, or marrying. These restrictions are grounded in the notion that minors lack the mental maturity and authority to fully comprehend the consequences of their choices. Nepal acknowledges this principle by recognizing statutory rape as a criminal offense under section 219(2) of its 2017 Criminal Code. Notably, Nepal has set the legal marriage age at 20, higher than the commonly observed age of 18 in many other countries.
Hence, it is fundamentally flawed to absolve an adult partner of a minor from statutory rape charges solely based on the minor’s consent to marriage and sexual activity. Although Nepal deserves recognition for its higher marriage age compared to other nations, the Supreme Court’s ruling underscores a disconcerting reality: child marriage is not being treated as a grave concern within Nepalese society.