Are family relations/systems more important than women’s rights? In a country where violence against women has been a routine affair, fortunately public sentiment is increasingly turning, albeit slowly, against such heinous acts. But the Centre’s thought process is out of sync with that of many citizens.
The Centre on Monday told the Delhi High Court that if marital rape is brought under law, “the entire family system will be under great stress” and defended the penal code provision that protects husbands from being tried for the rape of their wives.
Quoting from the Justice JS Verma committee report, the Centre defended its stance by saying that “even when marital rape is recognised as a crime, there is a risk that judges might regard it as less serious than other forms of rape”. The panel had examined the criminal law in the aftermath of the 2012 December 16 gang rape and recommended several changes in existing laws.
But it’s not just the Centre that is not keen to go ahead with criminalising marital rape. In March, a parliamentary standing committee on home affairs steered clear of declaring marital rape a crime. In May, Union minister for women and child development Maneka Gandhi said that laws against marital rape are not being used by women in 99.9% of cases, and most women tend to use the law only after the marriage is over. Later the minister said in a reply to a question in Parliament: “It is considered that the concept of marital rape, as understood internationally, cannot be suitably applied in the Indian context due to various factors.”
The government’s words fly in the face of United Nations recommendations, and undermine India’s attempts to project itself as a progressive global leader. Should our social reforms lag behind our excellence in digital technologies and scientific achievements? Malaysia and Turkey, steeped in patriarchal cultures, are ahead of India in this curve.
India’s Constitution is a modern one that promises equality and social justice, and laws must lead social reform rather than be victims of the status quo that the government and parliamentary panel seem to favour. When women experience coercion and violence within relationships, it violates their fundamental right to live in safety, security and with dignity. An intimate relationship, particularly marriage, should be a space of mutual trust and respect.
Along with laws, however, it is also important to work towards the empowerment of women, politically, socially and economically, and also start engaging with boys and girls in addressing gender stereotypes and redefining notions of masculinity.