An Indian high court has upheld a law allowing sex with a woman of 15 if she is married.
The age at which a person can consent to sex in India is 18, aside from this exemption.
India has the largest number of child brides in the world. Around half of girls in India are married before their 18th birthday, according to Girls Not Brides. The umbrella organisation, made up of more than 600 civil society groups, said fewer Indian girls are marrying before the age of 15 than in the past, but rates of marriage have increased for girls between 15 and 18.
Critics say the exemption to the age of sexual consent encourages marriages involving girls under 18.
But the government told the high court that it was “not appropriate and practical” to change the law while there are at least 23 million existing child brides in India. Ministers said that amending the exemption would lead to “social tensions”.
“It has been decided to retain the age of 15 years under the exception 2 of Section 375 so as to give protection to husband and wife against criminalising the sexual activity between them,” said the ministry in an affidavit, filed in response to a public interest litigation against marital rape.
The law permitting sex with girls of 15 was passed in 1949 and has not been amended for 67 years.
The government amended the law in 2013 to raise the age of consent outside of marriage from 16 to 18, but did not change the age of consent for married girls. The Supreme Court is currently hearing a case arguing the excemption be removed from the law.
But precedent suggests even if the law was changed, it would be difficult to enforce.
Although most child brides in India are 15 or older, there are still more than 12 million girls below the age of 10 who are married, according to recent census data.
Rape within these marriages is thought to be common, but girls have no platform to complain.
India is a member of the South Asian Initiative to End Violence Against Children and has signed up to a regional action plan in the hope of significantly reducing child marriage by 2018.