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Govt’s refusal to criminalize marital rape is unjust and inconsistent

LiveMint logoLiveMint 04-09-2017 Roshan Kishore

The Narendra Modi government has filed an affidavit in the Supreme Court arguing against criminalizing marital rape. Doing so would “destabilize the institution of marriage, apart from being an easy tool for harassing husbands,” it says.

The government has also argued against a plea demanding that 18 years be made the minimum age for consummation of marriage for child brides. Such positions are in contrast with the forthright stand taken by the government against triple talaq which challenged retrograde religious orthodoxy. By doing this, the government is effectively shrugging off responsibility towards millions of women who face sexual violence from their husbands. Statistics also show that couples who have seen such violence among their parents are more likely to experience it themselves. This means that justifying such acts in the name of stabilizing families only perpetuates them.

The National Family and Health Survey periodically asks questions about sexual violence by husbands and other persons against currently married women aged 15-49 years. Questions include those about women being forced to have sexual intercourse or engage in specific sexual activities without consent or being threatened into doing so. While a lot of data for NFHS 4, which was carried out in 2015-16, has been released, information on sexual violence has been withheld.

Mint has looked at NFHS 3 results for 2005-06 to look at the extent of sexual violence. Among married women aged 15-49 years, 8.2%  have faced sexual violence at least once. According to the 2011 census, there are 230 million married women in India in this age group. This means that around 19 million of them could have faced sexual violence. 

Graphic: Prajakta Patil/Mint

An overwhelming majority of these acts are committed by husbands. A 2014 paper by Aashish Gupta of the Research Institute for Compassionate Economics (Rice) has used NFHS 3 data to show that husbands were responsible for 6,590 incidents of sexual violence per 100,000 women. Other men were responsible for 157 per 100,000 women. Only 0.6% of sexual violence committed by husbands was reported to the police. This figure was 5.8% for similar crimes committed by others. 

Women who are subjected to sexual violence are more likely to face serious forms of physical and emotional violence than those who only suffer physical violence, according to NFHS statistics.

Ignoring these crimes in the name of stabilizing the institution of family has only made matters worse. If their mother was beaten by their father, both husbands and wives are more likely to inflict/experience sexual and other forms of spousal violence. The consequences are more severe for women.

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To be sure, India is not the only country where women are subjected to sexual and physical violence by their intimate partners. The Rice paper quotes United Nations Women 2011 statistics to show this the problem persists in both developing and developed countries.

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Also, lack of prosecution is only a part of the problem. Entrenched patriarchal notions have legitimized such violence even among women. More than four in 10 women who had experienced physical or sexual violence felt that wife-beating was justified under various excuses.

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These figures underline the need for undertaking both legal and social reforms to deal with the menace of sexual violence by husbands against their wives. While numerous organizations have been fighting against this social evil, both the previous and present governments have refused to make the required legal reforms.

According to a 2011 census, there were 212,000 Muslim women who had been divorced. Only a fraction of them are likely to have been victims of triple talaq, as there are other ways of divorce within the Muslim personal law. Millions of women are subjected to sexual violence in the name of marriage and cannot seek recourse to law. There cannot be any consistent explanation for the government standing by the former and abdicating the latter’s cause.

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