To Tackle Marital Rape, We Should Be Able To Talk About Sex In The First Place

In today’s time, surrounded by inhibitions, taboos and pressures, even supporting a social cause, can raise an eyebrow. Marital rape is one such cause which needs no introduction, yet it needs to be spoken about over and over again because most of us are still living in denial about it.

Thousands of women continue to silently bear the brunt of this inhuman act. And why do they suffer in silence?

The image of marriage being a sacred institution and blessing would be the first reason. By default, after marriage, the rights of a woman gets subsumed by the rights of her husband, and she is expected to worship or adore him. Then, how can she raise her voice against a person who takes the default role of decision maker and head of the family, after marriage? Through this societal construct, indirectly, the concept of marital rape gets lost. Many a times, a husband’s role as head of the house strips off the existence of his wife’s identity and freedom. And in many cases, her sexual freedom too. The concept of a wife’s consent is assumed to have simply vanished, after getting married.

I always ask, ‘Well, does she really, cease to exist as an individual after getting married?’ And over the years, this question has perplexed me more, as many educated elders, friends informed me of their views.

The Effects of Pre-defined Gender Roles In The Bedroom

On the one hand, we try to portray marriage as the most sacred union in the world. And I am sure, most of us have grown up, hearing this. And, the role of ‘Head of the house’, ‘breadwinner’, ‘master’  is also, fed into us, right from childhood. So what happens because of these inculcated social customs? Well, for one thing, such pre-defined gender roles and titles actually take away any semblance of ‘equality’ in any marriage.

Just to introspect further on this, do such roles and titles promote healthy, meaningful conversation of sex, sexual health, reproductive health etc. between the partners in any way? And for a marriage to be equal, both persons involved need to decide on aspects of their lives together. And that includes their sex lives. Chances of content and satisfaction in married life are always high when such pre-defined gender roles or titles don’t exist. Expectations of the man being in control, and solely responsible for decision making, would simply curb free dialogues from taking place. And such a power play would pass from the dining table, to the living room and finally into the bedroom as well.

Come to think of it, how many married women have talked about marital rape? Perhaps in a few surveys and studies.

It is an act of violence that needs to be criminalised, everywhere. Because crime is a crime. And this act violates the individual and fundamental rights of a person. Spousal rape survivors can sometimes be more psychologically traumatised. And living in constant fear and shame combined with being quiet about the rape, also leads to the eventual breakdown of marriages.

Of course, the present critique is that, criminalisation of marital rape would alone destroy the institution of marriage. But what about the silent abuse that slowly kills the marriage? Is it okay to pass on this problematic patriarchal mindset, to our children?

Protecting one’s culture and preserving it, is fine. But in doing so, if a person is violated, is it justified?

The Way Forward

Times have changed and what was acceptable a few decades ago, is not necessarily, acceptable today. Even now, the debate continues on the exemption (2) of  Sec 375 of the Indian Penal Code, which doesn’t acknowledge sexual intercourse within the institution of marriage without consent as rape. And this debates continues on with child marriages as well. The same question is applicable here as well; where does that leave child brides? And should the institution of marriage be protected for keeping social customs intact or the rights of children being forced into marriages be looked into?

The criminalisation of marital rape can be a start, as a system of prevention and protection of rights. At the same time, what will help more in the long run, is the sensitization of the general public, societies, families etc. on individual rights, women’s autonomy, consent to sex and sexual and reproductive health. Innovative campaigns are the need of the hour, focusing on every member of the society and not judges, lawyers or counsellors alone. It is time; stereotypes are broken at every step of the way.

Sex, Marital Sex and Rape

Within the institution of marriage, sex is considered sacred. Something that is personal, and should not be discussed outside closed bedroom doors.

Why should sex be only seen as a sacred activity, reserved only for married adults? And if it is indeed sacred, why is it not consesual in some cases? Why is it used as a tool for personal satisfaction of one person and not for both the partners involved in sex?  

Inculcating the idea that sex is sacred or some sort of a secret which shouldn’t be discussed outside private spaces, often perpetuates more inhibitions about sex.  As a result, honest conversations never take place, not even between parents and their children. And how easy would it have been, if such conversations took place? I’m sure the number of women suffering in silence would have gone down for sure.

Marital rape is not marital sex. It is forced sex. And forced sex is rape. Of course, not every marriage has the same fate. But that does not mean, the violence of marital rape is not a reality.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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