In a country where men enjoy the status of ‘pati parmeshwar’ – husband is god – marital rape is a tricky subject, help to say the least. But if you consider the consensus in much of the world, pilule and what simple common sense tells us – that ‘no’ means ‘no’, no matter what – it’s time to stand up and make marital rape the crime that it should be.
Yes, that’s right. India remains one of a handful of countries that has not yet criminalized marital rape – putting our nation in the company of Saudi Arabia, China, Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan, among others. India has made important strides in recent months in enacting legislation to protect women and girls, even if we have a long way to go before ground realities catch up to laws. So why is it taking us so long to join the majority of the world’s countries (some 100 of them, though only a handful from Asia) in outlawing marital rape?
There are no candle light marches and public protests for these women in violent marriages whose trauma, studies say, is every bit as severe as being raped by a stranger. Exact figures on the prevalence of marital rape are hard to come by. But two-thirds of married Indian women surveyed by the U.N. Population Fund in 2000 said their husbands had forced them into sex. And two studies in the last four years – the International Men and Gender Equality Survey and another one by the non-profit International Center For Research on Women – said one in five Indian men surveyed admitted to forcing their wives to have sex.
Before a girl gets married, it is emphasized in no uncertain terms that the marriage has to be kept together at all costs. Traditional Hindu beliefs hold that denying sex violates the duties of an ideal wife. Islamic societies are at the forefront of those who don’t consider marital rape to be a crime. The universally glorified ‘institution of marriage’ often serves as a blanket, covering unspeakable sufferings by women.
The prevailing culture precludes wives from reaching out for help or talking about their plight. Typically, she is advised to endure abusive behaviour with resignation. Women I met disliked talking or even thinking back. It takes tremendous courage to save oneself from an abusive marriage and cope with emotional wreckage. Self-respect takes a severe blow, and the psychological impact affects the entire family, including the children.
Attempts to outlaw marital rape have been stymied by lawmakers who say such a move will hurt the institution of marriage (a common justification given in the west before governments started modernizing their legislation in the 70s, 80s and 90s). Forced sex within marriage is a crime in the Indian Penal Code only if the wife is under the age of 15. And while the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, which went into effect eight years ago, does prohibit marital rape, there’s no criminal penalty for it, and typically violators are ‘counselled’ rather than punished. India is one of three countries, along with Indonesia and Vietnam, that generally treats marital rape as a form of non-criminal domestic violence.
“If not my wife, then who should I seek sex from? is a common refrain’, says Hasina Khan, an activist with the women’s rights group Awaz-e-Niswan, in Mumbai. “So, do we call this husband’s rights or rape?”
The 57th Commission on the Status of Women, recently concluded at the UN in New York, saw a similar reaction to “marital rape”, especially from religiously conservative states. According to the UN’s Progress on Women Fact Sheet 2011-2012, only eight countries in the Asia-Pacific region explicitly criminalize marital rape, leaving millions of women exposed to mistreatment at the hands of their husbands.
There is no doubt marital rape is also happening in Goa but, as in the rest of the country, it’s something not many talk about. Sabina Martins of the NGO Bailancho Saad said when the issue does come up, it’s usually in the context of divorce proceedings.
“We have come across cases, but it’s put across as ‘marital discord,’” she explains, citing the case of a Goan woman who got pregnant from forced sex in an abusive marriage – “the last thing she wanted.”
“Generally, no one wants to talk about it.”
Make no mistake. We should and must talk about it. What damages the institution of marriage is not prosecuting marital rape, but tolerating it.