If there is any institution which has consistently stood for women’s rights, it is the Supreme Court of India. This is why it is puzzling as to why it refused to entertain a plea from a woman to declare marital rape a criminal offence.
The woman in question had allegedly been subjected to sexual violence by her husband but was helpless to act against him due to the fact that marital rape is not a crime in India. Irrespective of the apex court ruling, this issue needs a relook by the law.
The law commission, had as far back as 2000, recommended that forced sexual relations by a husband should be treated as violence against his wife. This was buttressed by the Justice JS Verma committee, which looked into the rape laws after the heinous gangrape in Delhi.
But the law has never been changed to reflect the reality that many women are subjected to marital rape, something seen as part of patriarchal right in many societies.
Many countries like the United States, Canada, France and Britain list marital rape as a criminal offence. In our neighbourhood Bhutan has legislation criminalising marital rape. This issue assumes greater significance in India given that many women are married off before the age of consent. They are subject to sexual violence and are conditioned by society to suffer in silence.
The laws on women’s rights have become more progressive over the years; the rape law was the most recent to be given more teeth. The fact that a woman has full autonomy over her body both within and outside marriage is indisputable.
Therefore, sexual violence cannot be condoned as having sanction if it takes place within a marriage. The law has to be debated and changed. The argument that this provision can be used to settle scores by disgruntled wives is specious. The woman must have the full protection of the law against all forms of violence.
The social mindset that a woman is a man’s property to do with as he pleases may be reinforced by forums like khap panchayats but the law has to weigh in on the side of women in all matters related to her mental and physical well being. This is one change in the law that is long overdue and vital for the protection of women.