It was a daily terror, a nightmarish ritual that tormented her each night. That's how a 27-year-old Indian woman describes the repeated rapes by her husband.
“I used to get jitters before going into my room. I would dread the thought of what was awaiting me,” she told journalist Priyali Sur for a May article published by the nonprofit Women's Media Center. “What happened in our bedroom was not what normally happens between a husband and wife; I felt like he had bought me. I was treated like a sex slave, like a sex toy. He would insert things inside me, slap me, and bite me. He was like an animal. Even during my menstruation, he wouldn’t spare me.”
On Feb. 14 last year, her husband’s birthday, the woman said he beat her multiple times before raping her with a flashlight, forcefully inserting the object into her vagina.
“I started bleeding but instead of taking me to the hospital he took me to my in-laws’ house and locked me up,” the woman said. “When the bleeding didn’t stop, my in-laws took me to the hospital. I was in a semi-conscious state … My legs and my entire body had swollen up. I was bleeding profusely. I bled for 60 long days.”
Her husband was never prosecuted for assaulting her.
The woman petitioned India’s Supreme Court in February with a plea to declare marital rape a criminal offense.
The court said that it couldn’t change the law for just one person and dismissed her petition.
“I don’t understand the law. I’m a layman,” she told Sur after the court’s decision. “All I want to know is: Don’t married women have any right to approach the legal system? Are they only meant to suffer, commit suicide or die?”
In December 2012, a 23-year-old student was gang raped by six men on a moving New Delhi bus on her way home.
She died from her injuries 13 days later.
Her murder sparked an unprecedented reaction in India; thousands of outraged people flocked to the streets to demand justice and change. The international response was also swift and widespread, according to Karuna Nundy, a prominent Supreme Court lawyer who specializes in human rights and commercial litigation.
“Men and women, young and old, there were so many people,” Nundy told The Huffington Post. “Delhi was the epicenter for the movement, but it was happening everywhere. People were saying ‘enough is enough; this is not OK for us as a society.’ It was incredibly moving.”
Read an interview with Karuna Nundy about her work, and the trial of the student's attackers here.
As anger continued to simmer in the months following the student’s death, there were calls for stricter sexual assault and rape laws in the country. By 2013, new legislation was passed that strengthened punishments for sex crimes. Violations such as stalking and voyeurism were added to the penal code, and police officers were made criminally accountable for failing to record sexual offenses. Last year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government pledged “zero tolerance” for violence against women and vowed to strengthen the criminal justice system to crack down on these crimes.
But despite these promises, and though some laws pertaining to sexual assault by strangers have indeed been beefed up, the archaic law that permits a husband to rape his wife still exists.
“Sexual intercourse or sexual acts by a man with his own wife, the wife not being under 15 years of age, is not rape,” states a 2013 amendment to the Indian Penal Code of 1860.
With such a law in place, registering a case of sexual assault against a husband in India can be exceedingly difficult, if not impossible.
This has resulted in a marital rape crisis of “tragic proportions” in the country, with men assaulting their wives with impunity and women enduring the abuse under a shroud of silence, according to activists including Mihira Sood, a Delhi-based attorney who specializes in women’s rights.
“Marital rape is an extremely widespread problem,” Sood told HuffPost. “[It’s] compounded by the fact that it is not recognized as an offense, either by the law as well as by much of society that is conditioned to see it as an inevitable part of marriage.”
Since marital rape is not a crime, exact statistics are hard to come by. The limited data that is available, however, provides a horrifying glimpse into the enormity of the problem.
Last year, the United Nations Population Fund and the International Center for Research on Women surveyed more than 9,200 men across seven Indian states. One-third of them admitted to having forced a sexual act on their wives, while 60 percent said they’d used some form of violence to assert dominance over their partners.
Another 2014 report, by researcher Aashish Gupta of the Rice Institute, found that women are 40 times more likely to be sexually assaulted by their husband than a stranger. Gupta concluded that fewer than 1 percent of sexual assaults within marriage are reported to police.
Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch, told HuffPost that marital rape is one of the most underreported crimes, "often because women will regard this as an unpleasant part of their marital duties."
Other barriers to disclosure include widespread social stigma, lack of state support structure and a police force that has not been trained to deal with cases of marital sexual assault, Ganguly said.
In May, an Indian woman told journalist Namita Bhandare that when she sought the help of police after being raped and beaten on multiple occasions by her husband, they gave her a pat on the back and then sent her away.
“They were very sympathetic, gave me a cup of tea and told me to go back home and ‘adjust,’” she recalled.
India is hardly alone in this scourge. “Marital rape exists in most societies,” HRW's Ganguly said.
Rape within marriage remains legal in several countries in Asia, Africa and the Middle East, including Singapore, China, Egypt, Lebanon and Morocco. And even in countries where spousal rape is technically a crime, strong legislation and adequate punishment is often severely lacking.
In several states in the U.S., including Ohio, Oklahoma and Connecticut, marital rape is “semi-legal,” according to a June report by The Daily Beast. Sexual violence within marriage is also an “infrequently prosecuted” crime in America.
Still, though India may not be unique in this struggle, human rights activists in the country agree that combatting sexual violence in marriage is an extremely urgent concern.
Faizan Mustafa, vice chancellor of the Nalsar University of Law in Hyderabad, said the situation has assumed “tragic proportions.”
However, there has been extreme opposition from all sectors of Indian society to the idea of making marital rape a crime.
In 2013, a panel of lawmakers told parliament that the move “has the potential of destroying the institution of marriage.” Home Affairs Minister Haribhai Chaudhary said in April that “the concept of marital rape, as understood internationally, cannot be suitably applied in the Indian context due to various factors,” including illiteracy, poverty, social custom, religion and the widespread perception that "marriages are sacrosanct." The Indian government, he said, would not be considering any amendment to its laws regarding marital rape despite a United Nations recommendation to do.
Human rights advocates were outraged at the apparent irony: Marriage is a sacrament. And you can rape your wife.
“It does not take literacy or wealth to recognize that rape is wrong,” Ganguly told HuffPost in October. “Nor is this problem restricted to poor communities. In fact, no social custom or religious belief permits rape.”
It does not take literacy or wealth to recognize that rape is wrong. No social custom or religious belief permits rape. Meenakshi Ganguly
Dismantling a deeply entrenched system of patriarchy in the country is a major challenge women’s rights activists face in their fight against marital rape, said Priya Nanda, a director at the International Center for Research on Women.
“From the girl who has to stop doing homework to make tea for her father or is pulled out of school to marry, to the girl who is not given rightful access to her inheritance, or men in institutions of power, you see male privilege everywhere,” Nanda said over Skype from her New Delhi office. “At every level, we encounter the forces of patriarchy. It is deeply internalized, by men and women alike, and extremely difficult to challenge.”
This ideology has had a profound spillover effect on the way many Indian men -- and women -- relate to their intimate partners.
As the Nalsar University of Law's Mustafa put it: “One archaic idea that continues to persist to date is that of the woman being seen as a mere property, over which its owner, the husband, has the sole, unquestioned right and he can do whatever he wants with her even if that means violating her sexual autonomy.”
According to the 2014 UNPFA/ICRW report, two out of three Indian men said they expect their wives to always agree to sex, while more than half revealed that they “didn’t expect their partners to use contraceptives without their permission.”
Women largely shared similar views on these matters, the report found. About 65 percent of female respondents agreed that “there are times when a woman deserves to be beaten,” while 9 out of 10 women surveyed said wives should “obey” their husbands.
“For many years, I didn’t even know what domestic violence meant. I would just take the anger, the shouting, and the beatings,” a 39-year-old marital rape survivor named Bhagwati told local news outlet Tehelka in 2013. “We are taught from before marriage that sex is a duty you have to perform for your husband.”
In India, a Hindu-majority country, a deeply conservative view of marriage has skewed the conversation about sex and consent, according to campaigners including Supreme Court advocate Sood.
“For a large part of society, marriage is not a romantic, egalitarian partnership entered into by choice, but an understanding between two families promising economic and social security to a woman in exchange for sexual availability and fidelity, housekeeping and child birth and care,” Sood said. “The issue of non consensual sex is often not even seen as a valid issue then, as marriage is viewed as irrevocable consent for life.”
This view that wives are duty-bound to have sex with their husbands is, in fact, codified in law.
The Hindu Marriage Act of 1955 states that a married person can take his or her spouse to court to demand the “restitution of conjugal rights” if the partner refuses to have sex with them.
Though this law applies to men and women, it’s used most commonly to grant divorces on the grounds that a wife has denied sex to her husband.
In 2012, a high court in the southwest Indian state of Karnataka ruled that a woman denying sex to her husband without a specific reason is a form of “cruelty.” The Supreme Court made a similar ruling last year.
In other words, while “a woman can’t accuse her husband of rape,” the husband “can legally take her to court for saying no to sex,” said the Nalsar University of Law's Mustafa. “Marital rape is legal, [but] a woman saying no too often is not.”
Activists say a two-pronged approach is needed to address this colossal crisis. It's not just laws, but also hearts and minds that need to change.
“This is a constitutional issue,” Nundy, who drafted contributions to India’s 2013 anti-rape laws, told HuffPost over the phone this month. “Because it’s a constitutional issue, it’s something the courts should be acting on, [though] they've refused to do so on various occasions.”
Criminalizing marital rape is a critical first step in providing recourse and protection to women like Anita, a 28-year-old rape survivor from Uttar Pradesh who said she felt so trapped in her abusive marriage that suicide seemed like the only option.
“I was so scared of my husband, and hated myself so much that I tried to kill myself,” Anita, whose husband would force her to have sex at all hours of the day, told Tehelka in 2013. “This was not a marriage. There was no love between us.”
Another marital rape survivor who was beaten and kicked into submission by her husband echoed this helplessness in her interview with the news outlet. “He’s richer and more powerful than me,” said Neha, a 26-year-old former school teacher from Lucknow. “Will the police listen to me, a lone woman? How will I fight him?”
Changing the law to immediately protect women like Anita and Neha should be a top priority for lawmakers, activists say. But for the long term, enacting a deeper social change is critical, too.
“One priority should be the implementation of a very intense public education program to take down patriarchy,” said Nundy. “Also, we need to be teaching kids about consent and sexuality.”
“People need to start seeing women as full citizens, full individuals,” she continued, “with the right to a taste in music, with a right to go to work, to express their own sexualities the way they wish. I think that’s something that can come through conversation, but will come also with power. ... These things can be done.”
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) for the National Domestic Violence Hotline or visit the National Sexual Assault Online Hotline operated by RAINN. For more resources, visit the National Sexual Violence Resource Center's website.
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