In a country where rape is still considered a matter of shame, met with suspicion rather than empathy, the law believes that rape is not possible in a marriage. The institution of marriage, it’s believed, implies that there is no need for consent between the participants. Kanimozhi Karunanidhi, DMK MP in Rajya Sabha, claimed that according to a UN Population Fund report, 75 per cent of married women in India were subjected to marital rape. Looking at the patriarchal Indian society and how female sexuality is a myth to many, it’s not surprising that this law enables violence against women.
It raises the question whether marriage means being entitled to have sex with your partner, irrespective of their wishes and desires? The official answer appears to be yes, in support of the current Indian Penal Code, which exempts marital rape from being considered as rape—as long as the wife is more than 15 years of age. The female age of consent in India, determined on the basis of comprehension and understanding, is 18. So it’s legally possible to have sex with a girl who is under the age of consent, without any sort of repercussions.
When recently asked about the UN Committee’s recommendation to criminalise marital rape in India, the minister of state for Home, Haribhai Parathibhai Chaudhary, said that looking at the context, the international concept of marital rape “isn’t applicable in the country”. Factors such as “level of education, illiteracy, poverty, myriad social customs and values, religious beliefs, the mind-set of the society to treat the marriage as a sacrament,” were cited as justifications for Indian marriages to presume sexual consent. One would assume, since there was illiteracy, poverty and all of the problems he set out, that it would be the responsibility of the government to protect any would-be victims of this circumstance. Apparently not.
Justice Verma Committee report set up in the aftermath of the Nirbhaya case suggested the removal of this exception, and even then the government hadn’t acquiesced, saying that such an amendment would ‘weaken traditional family values’. ‘Traditional family values’, probably being a reference to the absence of agency of women in the past; how they historically went from belonging to their fathers to their husbands but never to themselves. Statements like these, which normalise non-consensual sex in “special circumstances” are a symptom of the bigger problem, of ‘rape culture‘ in the society.
And it’s ‘values’ like these that result in events like ‘German Professor rejects Indian student due to the country’s rape problem‘, that equally evoke both fury and embarrassment. India is currently the 4th in terms of Highest Rape Crimes in the world, with approximately a rape reported every 22 minutes. When laws which are meant to protect the vulnerable actually create loopholes for the ones with power, it is indisputable that India needs to take a long hard look at what ‘traditions’ it wants to protect, and why.