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Blinkers on marital rape

Centre cites 'sacrament' to turn blind eye to assaults

By Ananya Sengupta
  • Published 30.04.15
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New Delhi, April 29: The Centre told Parliament today the concept of marital rape cannot be applied to the Indian context as marriage is "a sacrament".

"It is considered that the concept of marital rape, as understood internationally, cannot be suitably applied in the Indian context due to various factors e.g. level of education/ illiteracy, poverty, myriad social customs and values, religious beliefs, mindset of the society to treat the marriage as a sacrament, etc," minister of state for home Jaribhai Parathibhai Chaudhury said in a written reply to a question by DMK MP Kanimozhi.

Kanimozhi had asked the home ministry in a written query whether the government would bring a bill to amend the Indian Penal Code to remove the exception of marital rape from the definition of rape, and whether it is a fact that the UN Committee on Elimination of Discrimination against Women had recommended to India to criminalise marital rape.

She had also said that according to the United Nations Population Fund, 75 per cent of married women in India were subjected to marital rape and asked if the government had taken cognisance of this.

The minister accepted that the UN had made the recommendation. But he said that even the Law Commission, in its report after reviewing the rape laws, did not recommend criminalisation of marital rape.

India is among 30-odd countries, including China, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Saudi Arabia, that have not criminalised marital rape.

"It is absolutely ridiculous to say marriage is sacred and so marital rape cannot be a crime. So a woman who walks out of an abusive marriage is violating a sacred sacrament?" asked Kavita Krishnan of the All India Progressive Women Association. "The last National Family Health Survey (NFHS) data showed that the vast majority of sexual violence reported by women was within the marriage."

The health survey said just 2.3 per cent of rape that women reported to the NFHS interviewers was by men other than the husband.

Another study, by the International Centre for Women and the United Nations Population Fund in eight states last year, asked men about rape committed by them on wives. One third of the men in these states - Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Odisha - admitted to having forced a sexual act upon their wives or partners.

"Marital rape is a reality and justifying it through religious, cultural norms just shows the regressive mentality of the government. This shows the patriarchal mindset of this government," said Sudha Sundararaman, the vice-president of the All India Democratic Women's Association.

While the debate on criminalising marital rape had been going on for some time, it gained momentum in 2013 after the Delhi gang rape.

The Justice J.S. Verma Committee set up in the aftermath of the gang rape recommended that the exception for marital rape be removed.

The then UPA government did not accept the recommendation and a standing committee on home affairs backed the home ministry.

Under the existing IPC provisions, a husband can be charged with raping his wife only if she is below 16. Women who suffer marital rape usually invoke Section 354, which punishes "assault or criminal force to a woman with intent to outrage her modesty" and Section 377, which penalises "carnal intercourse against the order of nature" to file their cases of marital rape.

"The act of rape itself destroys the institution of marriage. The ability, or inability, to legally prosecute such an offence does not," said sociologist Gopa Bharadwaj.

Men's rights activist Kumar Jahgirdar welcomed the stand of the government. "Everything in marital life cannot be governed by laws. Laws like 498A are being regularly misused... The sanctity of marriage actually has no value now. I am glad the government has respected at least one of its aspects," he said.