New Delhi (Agencies): The Central government on Tuesday told the Supreme Court that marriage between the age group of 16-18 should be treated as "void" and that it was in favour of declaring as illegal child marriage which has been held as valid by courts in several cases, despite it being an offence.

Additional Solicitor General (ASG) Indira Jaising submitted that in order to curb child marriage it is necessary that it should be declared illegal as suggested by a Law Commission report.

Indira told the court that this was the only way to deal with the marriages between lovers who runaway from their homes before entering into the wedlock.

In these cases, the woman at the age of 16 is treated as having attained the age of consent for sexual relationship but is still not an adult (aged 18) to give her consent for marriage.

The court was told that due to this irreconcilable situation, the man who marries a woman of 16 years runs the risk of being charged for kidnapping and rape.

Prohibition of Child Marriages Act

Under the Prohibition of Child Marriages Act, whoever performs, conducts, directs or abets any child marriage is punishable with rigorous imprisonment up to two years and fine which may extend to one lakh rupees.

The Act says that child marriage can be declared illegal only at the option of contracting party being a child.

Relying on the provision of the Act, different High Courts have declared marriages involving minors as valid.

The ASG submitted before a bench of Justices Dalveer Bhandhari and Ashok Kumar Ganguli, that "In group cases from Andhra Pradesh and Delhi, the High Courts had observed that
such marriages are neither void nor voidable if a woman appears before the court and makes statements that she has voluntarily married the man."

"It has enabled a man who marries a girl below the age of 18 to plead in his defence that he entered into a valid marriage. Declaring marriage void below the age of 16 to 18 may address this issue," she said.

Concern over prevalent pratice

Expressing concern that child marriage is still prevalent in the country and such marriages are performed in the presence of law enforcement authorities, the Apex court lamented that thousands of marriages involving minor girls were being solemnised in the country, particularly in Rajasthan, and yet no action was being taken by those in authority.

"Hundreds of marriages take place. Not in hundreds but in thousands. Everyone knows it. Dates of marriages are fixed. Wedding cards are printed and distributed. Advertisements are placed in newspapers. It is in everyone's knowledge. Yet no action is taken," said the apex court bench.

The bench made the remarks while dealing with the National Commission for Women's petition challenging High Courts' order for declaring child marriage as valid.

The NCW has challenged a Delhi High Court verdict that held that if woman had not attained the age of 18 years and man had not turned 21, their marriage could not be held to be void if the girl makes a statement before the court that she married the man voluntarily. The high court judgment was delivered Aug 11, 2010.

Advocate Aparna Bhat, appearing for the Commission, drew the bench's attention to a Delhi High Court judgement which held valid a 15-year-old Muslim girl's marriage with an elderly man on the ground that the girl has reached the age of puberty.