Marital Rape Is More About Education And Not Just A Cultural Issue

 Marital Rape Is More About Education And Not Just A Cultural IssuePhoto credit-NARINDER NANU/AFP/Getty Images
Snapshot
  • We are obligated to seek out the most reliable information available on marital rape and sexual violence in India.

    If a socially prevalent misdeed is not inhibited by the government using globally standard and effective methods, the government is guilty of human rights violations.

    The actual situation of marital sexual violence in India is best known through two surveys-

    1. The National Family Health Survey (NFHS) of 2006

    2.The International Centre for Women and the United Nations Population Fund Survey.

    At minimum, legislation against marital rape is a moral statement by society.

The marital rape controversy once again brings attention to the tragedy of sexual violence in India. We are obligated to seek out the most reliable information available on the topic. Maneka Gandhi gave a shockingly poor response in Parliament to the question of why marital rape in India is not a crime. She failed to mention relevant information that is easily available. Further, if a socially prevalent misdeed is not inhibited by the government using globally standard and effective methods, the government is guilty of human rights violations.

We must start by agreeing that marital rape is a terrible deed, and much worse than many others which are illegal. The argument that marriage is sacred and therefore marital rape should not be criminalized is absurd. India currently criminalizes many actions that have some religious sanction. Further, there are few or no Indians of any prominence publicly making moral or religious excuses for marital rape, while there have been excuses made for rape by strangers.

Other crimes within marriage, such as physical abuse and of course murder, are thoroughly criminalized without controversy. With dowry murders, Indian law in fact places the burden of proof upon the accused. Another invalid argument against criminalizing marital rape is that it will lead to false accusations. That is true of all laws.

The actual situation of marital sexual violence in India is best known through two surveys. One is the National Family Health Survey (NFHS) of 2006. In this survey 9.5 percent of women aged 15-49 reported that at least once during their marriage their husband physically forced them to have sexual intercourse against their will. This survey is the most reliable of the available data due to its large sample size, clarity of the questions asked and coverage of multiple topics. Another is a survey conducted by the International Centre for Women and the United Nations Population Fund.

This survey is focused on sexual violence upon wives and girlfriends in India. The category of sexual violence is of course much broader than that of rape. This survey shows that one-third of men in several large states report having committed sexual violence, as defined by the survey, against their intimate partners. The second survey finds much higher levels of sexual violence than the 2006 NFHS report. This may be because it asks questions that define the term more broadly.

The last two governments have said that there are cultural norms in India that make legislation against marital rape difficult. It is unlikely that these politicians understand what Indian cultural norms regarding marital rape are. The 2006 NFHS report also shows that a third of Indian women have experienced domestic physical violence. The combination of marital rape and domestic violence data suggests that there actually are cultural norms against marital rape in India, and these norms are stronger and more widespread than norms against beating wives. Many men who have beaten their wives have not raped them. Even these men are respecting a norm against marital rape.

The presence of these norms is further substantiated by a pattern shown in the 2006 NFHS that the chances of a woman being raped by her husband declines steadily as her level of education increases. This means, as a woman gains more confidence and more respect from her husband and others around her, the norm against marital rape gains force in the mind of her husband. Of course, the lack of education should not deny any woman her basic human respect, but the sad reality is that it sometimes does.

The cultural excuses offered by Maneka Gandhi and other politicians probably mask a simple political fear on their part. However, this fear is not rational. As we see domestic violence is more widespread than marital rape. Still, there was no significant political or societal opposition to the domestic violence law of 2005, nor to legislation on the subject in 1983. The UPA passed the domestic violence law in 2005 and won elections in 2009. It is highly unlikely that legislation against marital rape would incur significant political costs for the ruling coalition.

To understand the potential benefits of legislation to criminalize marital rape it is useful to compare the situation in India to that in other countries. In the United States marital rape is illegal. However, prosecutions and convictions are few. Data available from 1978-85 shows an average of 13 convictions a year in a society of over 200 million, and those typically involved heinous violence. Surveys on the incidence of marital rape are few but they report that 8-10 percent of American married women have been raped by their husbands.

Some estimates go up to 14 percent. If we compare rates of incidence with conviction rates, we can conclude that the law is not a significant deterrent to marital rape in the United States. Similar situations hold throughout the world. Proof of guilt is extremely difficult to establish in such cases, as compared with rape outside intimate partnerships.

The facts presented above leave us with a different understanding of the potential for marital rape legislation India that is being circulated today. A large number of women are getting raped by their husbands. Everything that can be done to reduce this number should be done. There will not be significant opposition in Indian society to legislation criminalizing marital rape, and the existing cultural norms against marital rape are stronger than the political class recognizes. The actual prevalence of marital rape in India is not worse than in some other societies where it is a crime.

Further, the legislation in those societies is ineffective, given very low conviction rates. There is every reason to expect that legislation in India would meet a similar fate. But that does not mean the legislation should not be passed. At minimum, legislation is a moral statement by society. That statement should be made.

References-

[1] National Family Health Survey 2006, Chapter 15 Domestic Violence. URL: http://rchiips.org/nfhs/NFHS-3%20Dat/VOL-/Chapter%2015%20-%20Domestic%20Violence%20(468K).pdf

[2] The Hindu, “Marital rape:the numbers don’t lie” 11 November 2014.

[3] Patricia Mahoney and Linda M. Williams, “Sexual Assault in Marriage:Prevalence, Consequences,and Treatment of Wife Rape’ Family Research Laboratory, University of New Hampshire.URL: http://www.ncdsv.org/images/nnfr_partnerviolence_a20-yearliteraturereviewandsynthesis.pdf

[4] HealthResearchFunding.org, “21 Amazing Spousal Rape Statistics,” URL: http://healthresearchfunding.org/21-spousal-rape-statistics/

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