Why India's Minister for Women won't condemn rape in marriage

The Indian Minister cited several factors including, social norms, education levels, illiteracy and religious beliefs.

Anindito Mukherjee/Reuters/File
Activists from All India Democratic Women's Association (AIDWA) shout slogans as they carry placards outside the Haryana Bhawan during a protest in New Delhi, India.

Rape is considered a crime in India under section 375 of India’s Penal Code – except when it involves a spouse.

Under Indian law – The Criminal Law (Amendment) Act, 2013 – “sexual intercourse or sexual acts by a man with his own wife, the wife not being under fifteen years of age, is not rape."

Maneka Gandhi, India’s Minister for Women and Child Development, said Thursday, that  India isn’t ready to pass a legislation that would criminalize marital rape. Citing several factors including, social norms, education levels, illiteracy and religious beliefs Ms. Gandhi stated that the concept of spousal rape as understood in the international context, isn’t applicable in the Indian context.

Her remarks, coming three months after the Indian government announced plans to criminalize spousal rape, were criticized by analysts who say the comments negate the progress that women rights activists have made in championing for the measure, and other women rights issues.

"Since when did poverty, illiteracy and regressive social mores become valid reasons for not framing progressive laws?” Writes Shuma Raha, a journalist based in Delhi, on the Times of India. “Even today, legions of poor and uneducated Indian women believe it is their lot to be thrashed by their husbands. Did that stop us from bringing in the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act in 2005?"

The United Nations, which has been urging the Indian government to criminalize marital rape, reports that up to 75 percent of women are subjected to rape by their spouses.

Rape emerged as a major issue, sparking street protests and controversy in India since 2012, as The Christian Science Monitor reported: 

After years of complacency, sexual assault has become a major political issue in India. In 2012, a 23-year-old woman was gang-raped and later died from injuries on a bus ride home with her boyfriend at 9 P.M. in Delhi. The incident caused international uproar, and led to the creation of a court in Delhi to deal specifically with sexual assault cases.

But India isn’t alone in dealing with rape, and especially marital rape. In Africa, less than half the countries on the continent consider spousal rape a crime. The typical argument put forward contends that rape can’t happen in a marriage. It would be hard to prove, many say.

"You know, there's the African thing that your husband can't rape you,” Rita Achiro is Executive Director of the Uganda Women's Network, told the Voice of America.

“They will tell you how can your husband rape you?  It's an entitlement.  That's the belief people have, so we are still going round in circles trying to safeguard women using conditions under which she can deny the other sex.  Ideally, it shouldn't happen like that, there shouldn't be conditions. Rape is rape”

In the US, marital rape is illegal in all 50 states including the District of Columbia, though it wasn’t until the 1970s that marital rape was examined and an effort to criminalize it began. Previous laws – which originated from the British common law also holding that it wasn’t possible for a spouse to rape in a marriage – exempted spouses from being prosecuted for marital rape, reports Time. By July 1993 all the states had criminalized spousal rape in the US.

But even the US continues to wrestle with attitudes about this issue. Last July, a lawyer for Donald Trump, Michael Cohen came under fire and had to apologize after he said that it isn’t possible for a spouse to rape in a marriage.

Even where it is outlawed, marital rape cases in Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Virginia and Idaho aren’t handled in the same way other rape cases. 

In both Ohio and Oklahoma, spouses claiming rape have to prove that their spouse used "force or threat of force" not just coercion for rape legislation to even apply in the first place, according to the Daily Beast.

A 2014 story by Health Research Funding.org found that 30 percent of rape cases were perpetrated by husbands and partners in long term relationships, and that 65 percent of the rapes happened more than once. The report also found that “women from religious backgrounds are more likely to accept spousal rape because they fear being labeled a ‘sinner' because of a possible divorce or having a spouse that commits adultery.”

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