The Centre has informed the Supreme Court that all marriages of persons in the 16-18 age group should be treated as voidable at the instance of either party to avoid the problem of girls under 16 giving consent for marriage and making it valid.

Additional Solicitor-General Indira Jaising, explaining the government's stand before a Bench of Justices Dalveer Bhandari and A.K. Ganguly on Tuesday, wanted the court to intervene in this regard.

Currently, cases of kidnapping and rape are routinely slapped on men by families of girls of this age group, who elope against the wishes of their families. Though the legal age of consent for a woman to sexual relations is 16, she can marry only at 18. As a result, a man who marries a woman aged between 16 and 18 runs the risk of inviting the penal provisions of kidnap and rape.

The Bench was hearing a petition filed by the National Commission for Women questioning a Delhi High Court order which upheld the marriage of a girl who had not reached the age of 18. Similarly, a judgment of the Andhra Pradesh High Court had held that the marriage of a 13-year-old girl was valid.

The NCW pointed out that there were many disparities among the Child Marriage (Restraint) Act, the Hindu Marriage Act, explanation to Section 375 of the Indian Penal Code, the Shariat, the Indian Divorce Act, the Child Labour (Regulation) Act and the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2000 on the minimum age for marriage of girls.

The Commission argued that the different definitions of ‘minor' in different laws led to a situation where the courts had to legalise minor marriages. It urged the court to frame a uniform definition of the term ‘minor' to eliminate such practical problems.

But the ASG said this demand was impracticable. “Different laws have different social goals. It is not possible to have a uniform definition of minor in different laws.”

The minimum age of marriage for both boys and girls should be 18, as there was no scientific basis why the ages for the two genders should be different, she said, citing a Law Commission report.