Rights activists are urging New Delhi to legislate marital rape and ensure protection for women at risk.
Almost immediately after Deepti’s wedding at a traditional ceremony in New Delhi, 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 told AFP, shuddering at the memory of the assaults that 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 deeply patriarchal 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, Gandhi 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 criminalizing 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 counseling session for marital rape in a Delhi neighborhood. “I am sure if this law is put in place, husbands will think twice before raping their wives.”
The government toughened laws in 2013 following the fatal gang-rape of a Delhi student which unleashed seething public anger about abuse against women. Rapists can now even get the death penalty in extreme cases. A former chief justice of India, appointed by the 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.”
Karuna Nundy, a lawyer who helped overhaul the laws in 2013, dismissed such arguments, along with those that warn of wives misusing such laws to settle personal scores with their husbands. “Any law can be misused,” Nundy told AFP, adding that marital rape was rarely reported to authorities, in part because of the shame attached to it.
Over half of women in India surveyed two years ago said they had experienced some form of sexual violence by a partner. And 60 percent of men questioned in the same survey admitted to perpetrating sexual abuse against a partner, according to the study conducted by the International Center for Research on Women and the United Nations Population Fund.
Marital-rape counselor 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 license for sex. They don’t even realize they need to ask for consent,” said Monica, who 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 counseling 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.