The Government of India has, effectively, told women that marriage is sacred, and that therefore they have no right to a remedy to rape within marriage.
Rajya Sabha MP Kanimozhi had asked the home ministry whether the government planned to bring in a bill to remove the exception to marital rape that is currently enshrined in the rape law. In a written reply, the minister of state for home, Haribhai Parathibhai Chaudhary said that the government had no plans to do so. He admitted that the UN CEDAW had recommended that India criminalise marital rape, but that the government could not do so thanks to the “myriad social customs and values, religious beliefs, mindset of the society to treat the marriage as a sacrament.”
This ‘marriage is a sacrament’ argument is abhorrent. It amounts to telling women that they must suffer violence and rape within marriage without complaint, since marriage is a sacred tie. By implication, this argument even delegitimises divorce for a woman suffering spousal abuse, since to seek divorce would be to ‘break the sacred tie of marriage.’
According to our government, treating marital rape like any other rape would pose a threat to the sacred nature of marriage. But does not violence and rape pose a threat, likewise, to the institution of marriage?
There is widespread evidence of such violence, even of marital rape. In an article titled ‘Marital rape: the numbers don’t lie,’ (The Hindu, November 12, 2014) Rukmini S made sense of the data available.
She pointed out that, according to researcher Aashish Gupta, 6.6% of women interviewed by National Family Health Survey interviewers, reported having experienced sexual violence by husbands. If this is what women reported, what men themselves admitted is even more significant. A study by the International Centre for Women (ICRW) and United Nations Population Fund’s (UNPFA), conducted in eight States (Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Odisha) asked 9,205 men, across caste, religious and income groups, whether they had ever forced a sexual act on their wife or girlfriend. One third of the men interviewed admitted to having done so.Upholding the conviction in a case of the murder of a wife by her husband, the Delhi high court on September 29, 2014, had observed that ""married women in India are safer on the street than in their matrimonial homes." Of course, this is not the case in India alone. Across the world, women are more likely to be murdered by their intimate partners than by strangers. What holds for murder, holds as true for rape as well.
The Justice Verma Committee, set up to recommend comprehensive changes in response to the anti-rape movement of December 2012, had observed that "The exemption for marital rape stems from a long out-dated notion of marriage which regarded wives as no more than the property of their husbands…a wife was deemed to have consented at the time of the marriage to have intercourse with her husband at his whim. Moreover, this consent could not be revoked." The Verma Committee had unambiguously recommended that the exception to marital rape must be removed from the rape law.
Today, the only remedy under criminal law available to women facing domestic cruelty and violence is 498A. This law, much under-used in reality, is drowned out by an outcry of ‘misuse’. Putting in safeguards against misuse by the police is one thing – but to project the myth that ‘misuse’ is a larger problem that rampant domestic cruelty faced by women in their marital homes, is simply unacceptable.
The Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005 provides protection from domestic violence, but does not criminalise such violence. Should marital rape be treated in the same manner as wife-battering? Is criminalisation the only way forward to tackle the problem of sexual violence within marriage? What does such rampant violence tell us about the institution of marriage itself? These are questions that can, and must, be discussed.
But the fact remains that we cannot push the issue of marital rape under the carpet of the ‘marital sacrament.’ Legislators cannot shut out the cries of suffering women by telling them that violence and rape are the price of marriage. Legislators need to open up a conversation with women’s organisations, and revisit the question of marital rape with the utmost urgency. Marriage simply cannot be accepted as a licence to rape.
(Kavita Krishnan is secretary, All India Progressive Women’s Association.)
Read: Marriage sacred, concept of marital rape cannot be applied in India, says govt
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