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It's Still Legal for a Man to Rape His Wife in India

Despite the strides recently made around sexual assault in India, for women, their wedding day is the day they permanently sign over their ability to consent.
September 30, 2015, 3:25pm
A woman at an anti-rape protest in Kolkata. Photo via DIBYANGSHU SARKAR/AFP/Getty Images

On December 16, 2012, 23 year old Jyoti Singh boarded a private bus with a male companion. The men already on bus, which was off-duty, were taking it for a joy ride. They waved the couple aboard, charged them 36 cents, then beat the two with an iron rod and repeatedly raped the woman as they drove around the city. The woman died two weeks later from wounds she had sustained during the attack.

This brutal gang rape sparked protests in India and outrage worldwide. Immediately following the incident, the discussion surrounding India's rape problem became louder and more forceful. A three-member panel to review India's sexual assault laws, the Justice Verna Committee, was set up, and they eventually submitted a comprehensive report to the government. After being elected last year, India's new Prime Minister Narendra Modi pledged "zero tolerance" of violence against women.

Read More: An Unflinching Play About Gang Rape in India

While the country has made some strides, the increased attention to the issue has not spurred significant change. In 2015, an American tourist visiting Dharamsala said she was grabbed by two men and raped. Earlier this year, three men were sentenced to 20 years in prison for raping a Japanese woman in Jaipur. This violence isn't isolated, and it's not only aimed at tourists. One 25-year-old victim of marital rape recently told the BBC that she felt she was "only a toy" for her husband, "which he thought he could use differently every night." Though she pleads with him to leave her alone, she said, he consistently ignores her—and she has no legal recourse because it is not illegal to rape your spouse in India.

One 25-year-old victim of marital rape recently told the BBC that she felt she was 'only a toy' for her husband.

Since December 2012, the Indian government has only made extremely modest legal developments. While the legal definition of rape has been expanded—thanks, in part, to the Justice Verna Committee—the new law overlooks martial rape entirely. For women in India, their wedding day is the day they permanently sign over their ability to consent.

India's Criminal Law (Amendment) Act of 2013, which defines rape, makes an explicit exception for sexual assault within a married couple, stating that "sexual intercourse or sexual acts by a man with his own wife, the wife not being under fifteen years of age, is not rape." And although the United Nations Committee on Elimination of Discrimination Against Women has recommended that India criminalize marital rape, the home affairs minister Haribhai Chaudhary responded in April of this year that the government does not intend to do so.

Image of protesters seeking justice for rape victim in India via Flickr/Ramesh Lalwani.

Chaudhary's reasons were nebulous. In his response to the UN's recommendations, he explained that marital rape "as understood internationally, cannot be suitably applied in the Indian context due to various factors," including level of education and literacy, poverty, religion, social customs, and more. This vague argument is why, in 2014, a Delhi man was not found guilty for forcing his wife to have sex with him. It is why several women suffer through their marriages in silence.

In 2013, an astounding 94 percent of rapes in India were committed by someone known to the victim.

Data from a recent National Family Health Survey from 2005 show that husbands commit a shockingly large proportion of sexual assaults in India. In 2013, an astounding 94 percent of rapes in India were committed by someone known to the victim. (For comparison, in America, that number is about 80 percent.) A report by the ICRW and the UNFPA found that 60 percent of Indian men had acted violently towards their partner, with men who had undergone economic stress more likely to commit some form of violence. The report explains that this could be because economic stress threatens a man's feelings of self worth, leading to increased control and violence towards their partners.

Despite greater modernization in India, the country has clung to a culture that puts the needs of men over those of women. "We live in a male-dominated society where women are dependent on their men," Donna Fernandes, founder of the women's rights organization Vimochana, explained over email. "If they do not agree to having sex they can be punished in various ways, like denying money for expenses."

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Meenakshi Ganguly, the South Asian regional director at Human Rights Watch, told me over email that while India's spiritual culture does not permit any violence, "in many traditional societies where men still occupy dominating roles, domestic violence has broad acceptance." According to Fernandes, "Indian culture accepts domestic violence as normal," and social stigma attached to domestic violence further discourages women from discussing a problem if it exists.

We live in a male-dominated society where women are dependent on their men.

Women's lack of legal recourse is exacerbated by minimal female representation in higher government. "The fact that our parliament has a majority of males is in itself a big problem," Dr. Jagdish Khubchandani, associate professor of community health at Ball State University, told me. He explained that those in power believe that if you criminalize marital rape, the whole family—and especially husbands—will suffer. In 2013, for instance, Indian lawmakers proclaimed that, if "marital rape is brought under the law, the entire family system will be under great stress."

This dearth of institutional support proves dangerous for women and smothers their voices. In an email interview, Gopika Bashi, a researcher at Amnesty International India, cited the most recent Nationwide Family Health Survey, which found that only 1 out of 100 women in India report sexual violence. Ganguly explained that many victims in India cannot take normal paths towards justice: Even if victims feel empowered to reach out to the police, they're often met with ridicule. As Charanjit Kaur, the sister of one rape victim, told the Washington Post, "The police refused to file a complaint. Instead, they asked my sister such vulgar details, it was as if she was being raped all over again."

The police refused to file a complaint. Instead, they asked my sister such vulgar details, it was as if she was being raped all over again.

In fact, Ganguly said, she has seen cases where police protect powerful perpetrators rather than victims. An article published in Brookings confirms this: Although Delhi boasts one of the largest metropolitan police forces globally, only a third are engaged in actual police work, while the others are involved in "protection services to various politicians, senior bureaucrats, diplomats, and other elites."

Because many people in India view sex and marriage as a private matter, victims of martial rape suffer in silence. Fernandes said that Indian women will often fail to report abuse in the interest of saving their marriage. Dr. Farzana Khan, a program manager at an organization known as My Choices, agreed, saying that even going to the police would be seen as attempt at destroying the family.

With such deep-seated misogyny and acceptance of domestic abuse, change must come from a two-pronged approach—one where increased education trains the public to hold men accountable for their behavior, and where lawmakers are able to pass effective legislation to provide increased support for women. Changing attitudes will only go so far if women can't follow a clear and efficient path to justice, and one of the first and most important steps in that path is the criminalization of marital rape.