Some debates appear to be timeless. Today’s raging debate on marital rape in India echoes arguments that go back more than 125 years ago to the Phulmani case when a 11-year-old Bengali girl died after being brutally raped by her 35-year-old husband. The colonial government then proposed to increase the age of consent for sexual intercourse for a girl from 10 to 12 years. But some of India’s most prominent leaders opposed the measure, and the Age of Consent Act was passed only in 1891, after much acrimony and argument.
Reflecting on this debate, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar said in 1943 (http://bit.ly/17fGw2O): “It is impossible to read the writing of those who supported orthodoxy in their opposition to the Age of Consent Bill, without realising the depth of the degradation to which the so-called leaders of the peoples had fallen… Could any sane man, could any man with a sense of shame, oppose so simple a measure? But it was opposed….” Dr. Ambedkar would have been as appalled by today’s arguments against the criminalisation of marital rape.
According to Section 375 of the Indian Penal Code, which defines “rape” and “consent”, “sexual intercourse or sexual acts by a man with his own wife, the wife not being under 15 years of age, is not rape”. Sexual intercourse can take place with or without consent, but because of the above exception, the latter is legalised within marriage by Indian law.
The warped defence for this exception continues in spite of overwhelming evidence that marital rape is the most common form of sexual violence in India. The National Family Health Survey (NFHS) in 2005-06 posed questions to over 80,000 women between the ages of 15 and 49, on sexual violence by husbands and other men. Sensitive questions such as “did your husband ever physically force you to have sexual intercourse with him even when you did not want to?” are difficult to ask in a survey; hence informed consent for the violence module was obtained twice, and trained interviewers were given strict instructions to ensure complete privacy of the respondents.
Data show that 8.5 per cent of the surveyed women (one in 12) said they had experienced sexual violence in their lifetime. Almost 93 per cent of these women said that they had been sexually abused by their current or former husbands, while only 1 per cent said that they had been sexually abused by a stranger.
Even though there is little hope from the current government, the political class could do more in this respect. The present controversy was stirred when Rajya Sabha MP Kanimozhi asked the government if it plans to bring an “amending bill to the IPC to remove the exception of marital rape”, to which the Minister of State for Home Affairs Haribhai Parathibhai Chaudhary reply was that the government had no plans to do so, as marriage is a sacred institution in India. It is time to ask the government if it at least accepts its own survey’s data on sexual violence by husbands.