The Supreme Court on Thursday said that the reading down of a provision in the Indian Penal Code that allows a man to man to have a sexual relationship with his wife, even if she was between 15 to 18 years old, would pave the way for more offences.

The apex court was hearing a petition by non-governmental organisation Independent Thought challenging the exception clause in Section 375 of the IPC, which defines the offence of rape, PTI reported. The exception clause says intercourse or a sexual act by a man with his wife, not below 15 years, is not rape.

The Supreme Court expressed its disappointment over the prevalence of child marriage across the country and publicly condemned parents who force their children to marry. “It is a hard reality and is unfortunate that most of the child marriages happening in the country are done by parents of the girl child,” a bench of Justices M B Lokur and Deepak Gupta said. The court observed that there were exceptions in odd cases where the couple are in love and marry willingly.

Representing the NGO, advocate Gaurav Agarwal said there was a discrepancy in the law as a 2013 amendment to the Code of Criminal Procedure had raised the age of consent for sexual intercourse by a girl from 16 to 18 years. But that in Section 375 of the IPC, the exception clause still has the minimum age of consent as 15 years.

Citing the National Family Health Survey 2015-16, Agarwal said the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012, should override the exception clause in the IPC and that a man should be prosecuted for having sex with his minor wife.

On August 10, the government had defended an exception clause in the Indian Penal Code that does not punish a man for raping his wife even if she is as young as 15. The Centre’s legal representative, Binu Tamta, had said it was trying to defend the institution of marriage as there are 23 million child brides in India. “The children from such marriages will suffer,” Tamta had said.