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“My body, your Right?”

Aug 22, 2013

Marital rape cannot be justified for the sake of protecting the institution of marriage, writes Dr Ranjana Kumari.

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Today as activists are hailing the passing of a new legislation against rape, women in India are still being raped and physically abused by their own husbands who had sworn to protect & respect them at the time of their marriage.

Marital rape refers to any unwanted sexual act by a spouse that is committed without the other person's consent through the use of force, threat of force or intimidation. In India, 2 out of 3 married women experience physical or sexual violence and many Indian men & women still believe that physical and sexual violence are a normal part of married life. It’s even more discouraging to note the Government of India's failure to criminalise rape within marriage which reflected the alarming fact that many ordinary people in India do not regard it as a crime.

Under Indian law, marital rape is not a crime and is legal in India and has been excluded from the PWDVA and the Indian Penal Code. This places India in the company of countries like China, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.

The recent gang rape of a 23 year-old para-medical student last year prompted India to strengthen its sexual assault legislation. But despite calls from activists, a man who rapes his wife cannot be punished under the country’s laws. Whether to criminalize marital rape or not was widely debated in India and in the Parliament. Criminalizing marital rape was also among the suggestions of the Verma Committee, the three-member panel appointed to suggest amendments to India’s sexual assault laws. However, the government rejected this proposed change, leaving it out of the draft bill it presented to the Parliament.

A panel of lawmakers who opposed the move argued that it has the potential of destroying the institution of marriage. “If marital rape is brought under the law, the entire family system will be under great stress”, according to a report submitted to Parliament earlier this month.

Some activists acknowledge it is hard to prove rape among married women and it may also lead to false counselling. But even a murder is hard to prove, and that doesn’t deny victims from seeking legal help. So why should victims of marital rape be denied a legal framework to fight sexual abuse. Some legal experts also believe the government is reluctant to criminalize marital rape because it would require them to tweak laws based on religious practices, including the Hindu Marriage Act 1955, which says a wife is duty-bound to have sex with her husband.

Many countries have already criminalized marital rape in recent years. Malaysia changed its laws to that effect in 2007, Turkey in 2005, and Bolivia earlier this year. The United States began criminalizing marital rape in 1970s and most European countries in the 1990s.  In India, it’s time to have an open debate on a woman’s bodily integrity and autonomy. Any violation of a woman’s bodily integrity is an abuse of her body and is obviously against her consent and leads to trauma and the possible break-up of a relationship. This kind of abuse lies at the core of domestic violence and such repeated instances make women suffer psychologically.

I hope there will be an open debate on this and that our Parliament will show a strong sense of responsibility towards women’s empowerment and the question of their bodily integrity.

The author is Director, Centre for Social Research and President, WomenPowerConnect.

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