Indian govt under pressure to frame law on marital rape

Police detain activists during a protest against the gang rape of a woman in Kolkata on Tuesday.
Police detain activists during a protest against the gang rape of a woman in Kolkata on Tuesday.

New Delhi - Loopholes in anti-rape law encourage abuse of women.


Published: Wed 1 Jun 2016, 3:27 PM

Last updated: Tue 25 Oct 2022, 4:36 PM

Almost immediately after Deeptis wedding at a traditional ceremony in the Indian capital, the horrific abuse began - behind closed doors at the hands of her new husband.

"He was brutal. He forcefully had sex with me even when I was admitted sick to hospital," she said, shuddering at the memory of the assaults which she endured for months before running away.

Deepti has spent three years since then fighting for justice, but she doubts her husband will ever be punished in a country that does not consider marital rape a crime.

"I want to ask is there no justice for victims like me? Just because he married me, did it give him a right over my body?" said Deepti, whose identity, like those of other victims interviewed, has not been revealed for legal reasons.

India has long suffered from high levels of sexual violence including in the home, but governments have shunned making marital rape a crime.

Women and children's minister Maneka Gandhi told parliament recently that a lack of education along with poverty, religious beliefs and societal norms, among other reasons, make such a law out of the question.

The comments sparked outrage among women's groups, and baffled many after the outspoken minister had earlier indicated her support for moving on the issue.

But as the torrent of criticism grew, Maneka reversed her position, saying it was now under consideration. "This is one of the most complicated places to intervene because you are intervening in the bedroom," she explained to reporters this month. "How to do it with grace and with firmness is something we need to negotiate."

The law states "sexual intercourse by a man with his own wife, the wife not being under 15 years of age, is not rape".

Husbands can be charged with a relatively minor offence of cruelty, which carries a maximum three years in jail or a fine. Women can also seek restraining orders and other protections under domestic violence legislation. But victims and activists say criminalising marital rape would act as a powerful deterrent and go a long way to protecting women in their own homes.

"You can't have two yardsticks for rape. You can't discriminate just because a woman is married," said a mother-of-two, Roma, at a counselling session for marital rape in a Delhi neighbourhood.

"I am sure if this law is put in place, husbands will think twice before raping their wives."

Marital-rape counsellor and lawyer Monica blamed India's deeply entrenched patriarchal culture and a lack of awareness of women's rights for the figures.

"Men think that marriage is a licence for sex. They don't even realise they need to ask for consent," said Monica, who uses one name and works for non-profit group Maitri. "If a wife thinks of complaining and goes to police, she will be told 'you should be lucky he is coming to you. Go back home and make him happy'."

At the counselling session, many of the women said they felt they had no choice but to endure the abuse if they wanted to stay married. "I was very young at the time that I got married. I did not even know what sex was," said mother-of-three Meera.

"I know whatever happened with me was very wrong. But my parents told me to keep quiet and just do as he said," she said, her eyes welling with tears.

  • > The then government toughened laws in 2013 following the fatal gang-rape of a Delhi student.
  • > A former chief justice of India, appointed by the then government at the time to investigate the laws, recommended including marital rape - but his suggestion was disregarded.
  • > A parliamentary panel looking into the issue in 2013 also rejected the idea, saying it would place the "Indian family system" under "great stress".
  • > Over half of women in India surveyed two years ago said they had experienced some form of sexual violence by a partner, according to the study conducted by the International Center for Research on Women and the United Nations Population Fund.
  • > 60 per cent of men questioned in the same survey admitted to perpetrating sexual abuse against a partner.

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