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Commentary » International

A husband's entitlement, or rape?

In many Asian cultures, a wife has no right to withhold sex

A husband's entitlement, or rape?
Virginia Saldanha, Mumbai International

April 5, 2013

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At a meeting in the early 1990s, an informal discussion on domestic violence drew some alarm when I mentioned “marital rape.” 

“What!?” exclaimed a couple of men, “there is no such thing as marital rape!” Even now, in the 21st century, I find that there are still men who share their view.

The Justice Verma Committee was set up in December by the Indian government in the wake of a brutal gang rape of a student in Delhi. Its purpose was to look into rape laws and suggest ways to curb violence against women.  It came back with several recommendations. 

A contentious one concerned ‘marital rape’ which did not make it into the Criminal Law (Amendment) Bill 2013.

Under the Indian Penal Code, sexual intercourse without consent is prohibited.  However, an exception to this offence exists in relation to non-consensual intercourse between husband and wife.  The Justice Verma Committee recommended that marital rape be outlawed. Marriage should not be considered as irrevocable consent to sexual acts. 

The 57th Commission on the Status of Women, recently concluded at the UN in New York, saw a similar reaction to the wording of “marital rape” especially from religiously conservative states.

Unfortunately sex on demand in marriage is widely considered a husband’s entitlement in patriarchal and religiously conservative societies of Asia.

Wives silently withstand violence to hold the marriage together.  The sexist mindset that focuses on the ‘needs’ of men rather than the wellbeing of women is pervasive. It is feared that a woman’s right to protect herself from this violence has the potential to destroy the institution of marriage.

Women in Asia, who comprise the largest number of poor and illiterate and lack knowledge of their rights and the laws to enforce them, experience most marital violence.  In several parts of Asia where women are imported as brides, their rights are severely compromised. Being alien to the culture, language and traditions of her husband’s family, she is unable to deal with domestic violence, much less marital rape.

Domestic violence has far-reaching consequences for families and even communities. Physical violence associated with marital rape can lead to complications in pregnancy resulting in health problems for both women and children. The psychological impact of marital rape on women can affect their children as well.

According to the UN's Progress on Women Fact Sheet 2011-2012, only eight countries and territories throughout the Asia Pacific region explicitly criminalize marital rape, leaving millions of women elsewhere exposed to abuse at the hands of their partners.

Most religions see men as the ‘head’ of the family and the wife as his ‘property’.  This attitude allows a man to do what he wishes with his wife, and women being the most faithful adherents of religion, accept violence as their lot in marriage.

Honor killings (where the family kills a girl for choosing her marriage partner), common in conservative communities of South Asia, is a violently emphatic “No” to woman’s choice. 

Arranged marriage, which does not bother with a woman’s consent, does not harbor any idea of marital rape.  Violence against women is legitimized by culture, tradition and religion rather than by the absence of law. 

Making an accusation of marital rape is impossible in Islamic communities where sharia law requires a woman to produce four male witnesses to corroborate a charge of rape. 

In Asia, where all religious traditions consider marriage a sacred union, a man should be taught to accept his wife’s refusal of sex with respect and understanding.  Can a man who abuses his wife during the entire day expect his wife to respond to his sexual advances at the end of the day?  A sexual act that is forced is rape. It is an expression of power.  Women’s organizations demand that it be considered violence against women.

Male chauvinism seems to triumph whenever it comes to giving women equality. As long as women’s voices remain muted by a sheer lack of numbers in decision making, we will continue to be frustrated by men who feel threatened by the thought of women’s equality when it comes to the empowerment of women.  

Virginia Saldanha is the former executive-secretary of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences Office of Laity with responsibility for the Women’s Desk. A freelance writer, she has a diploma in Theology for Laity from the Bombay Diocesan Seminary and is a woman activist working in India.

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