Can there be two yardsticks to define rape – rape of an unmarried woman and that of a married woman ? Is it acceptable to discriminate a woman just because she is married to the man who raped her ? It is generally accepted that Indian women are 40% more likely to experience rape from their husband than by a stranger. Although marital rape gets documented in hospitals, cases are rarely registered, since it is excluded from the India Penal Code’s (IPC) definition of rape. While a range of countries from Nepal in South Asia to the United States and Britain have criminalised marital rape, shameful as it is, there still is no law in India to protect married women against marital rape.
Marital rape is as traumatic as any sexual assault can be and the mainstream non-english media in India as well as the socially influential film industry have largely remained silent on the issue so far. Of late there have been attempts to break this pattern of silence – a recent movie Lipstick Under My Burkha has creatively and effectively highlighted the issue of marital rape. Nevertheless, it remains inadequate to bring about significant social and legal change. The biggest social impediment to such a change is that, for a large part of Indian society, marriage is not a romantic, egalitarian partnership entered into by choice, but an understanding between two families promising economic and social security to a woman in exchange for sexual availability and fidelity, housekeeping, child birth and care. The issue of non-consensual sex within marriage is therefore often not even seen as a valid issue and is hardly discussed within families. With such a social denial in place, registering a complaint of sexual assault against a husband in India can be exceedingly difficult, if not impossible. And even if she does, there are no adequate laws on the issue to protect her. This has resulted in a marital rape crisis of “tragic proportions” in the country, with men assaulting their wives with impunity and women enduring the abuse under a shroud of silence.
Recently an NGO the RIT Foundation, the All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA) and marital rape victim Khusboo Saifi filed three civil petitions against the Union of India on the issue of marital rape. Based on it, the Delhi high court has asked the Centre to provide an explanation for the exception under section 375 that allows a man to rape his wife if she is more than 15 years old, a law challenged as unconstitutional and inhumane by these petitions. While they are soon to come to a hearing , what our society requires is a soul searching as to why we have not yet made adequate progress as a society to criminalize marital rape – the most honest and straightforward reason for it is that Indian men donot want to give the woman the power to say NO.
This inadequacy makes India one of 49 nations that has not yet criminalized marital rape and continues to come under fire from women’s rights advocates around the globe. In March 2016, United Nations Development Program Chief Helen Clark went on record to say India would run afoul of the sustainable development goals it has adopted if it does not amend section 375. But many of India’s leaders argue that this change would be at odds with the culture of the country !!!. Sadly, that group includes Maneka Gandhi, union minister for women and child development, who had previously backed the criminalization of marital rape. The truth is – with a significant proportion of parliamentarians being conservative elderly above the age of 55 and the share of women parliamentarians being a mere 11 %, there is a significant deficit of modern values and serious political will on the matter.
If India needs to succeed in this century, then we need to start seeing women as full citizens, full individuals, with a right to go to work, to express their own sexualities and the right to say NO. If we have been able to agree that it’s criminal to beat your wife, it’s criminal to kill your wife, how can it ever be legal to rape your wife ? – it simply needs to change.