India tightened laws against child marriage on Tuesday, with priests, police or local leaders facing jail and fines if they permit the widespread but illegal practice.
Renuka Chowdhury, minister for women and children, said the Prohibition of Child Marriage Bill 2006 passed on Tuesday gives protection to tens of thousands of children forced into marriage every year.
"When we tell our children that they cannot vote when they are 15 years of age, we do not allow them to drive or to drink, then how is it that we think that they are capable of getting married?," Chowdhury asked the Lok Sabha.
"I refuse to accept that any child can give his or her consent. They are children, they are coerced, bullied, black-mailed, emotionally exploited."
Child rights activists say the average age of marriage has been rising slowly over the last two decades, but government studies show 65 per cent of girls are married before 18.
Early marriage contributes to high rates of maternal mortality, with one woman dying every seven minutes in India from a pregnancy-related cause, they say.
Marriage under the age of 18 for women and 21 for men is illegal but activists say the centuries-old tradition is still widespread due to a conservative, male-dominated society that is light on punishment and enforcement.
Under the new bill, adult males marrying children and people involved in performing, abetting or attending a child marriage can face up to two years in prison and a fine of 100,000 rupees.
"It's a barbaric practice and I am pleased to see that there is a law that will help empower children, especially the girl child who has suffered most," said Kailash Sathyathi of Bachpan Bachao Andolan, the Save the Childhood movement.
Each of India's states will have to appoint child marriage prohibition officers to stop the practice and collect evidence to prosecute such cases.
Courts will also be empowered to declare a child marriage null and void years after it takes place, if the person who was married as a child so desires. The husband will be forced to pay maintenance and give residence to the former wife.
(Additional reporting by Nigam Prusty)