Marital rape: the statistics show how real it is

As the dialogue about criminalisation of marital rape continues, medical records of survivors show enough reason why it should be a crime

June 30, 2016 08:36 am | Updated September 16, 2016 05:04 pm IST

MUMBAI: At 42, Asha (name changed) has spent 24 years of her life dreading the next assault. Sitting at a counselling centre in a Mumbai suburb, she vividly recalls each episode of violence: of being slapped, beaten with a stick, sexually abused in private and verbally abused in public, being abandoned, and later, treated like a slave. But she says she has clung to her ‘married’ status for it ensures a roof over her head, a one-room-kitchen flat that is in her husband’s name. Having studied up to Class X, she has taken up odd jobs, but says she can’t fend for herself with her poor earnings. She first lodged a domestic violence case against her husband in 2007. Nine years later, in August 2015, Asha landed in the emergency room of a public hospital with injuries on her private parts that doctors noted as those inflicted in a sexual assault. At the police station, the assault was seen as “a matter between a husband and wife” and no case was registered.

Emergency rooms and counselling centres for women in distress have been recording what the country is currently debating: the need to criminalise marital rape.

Of the 664 cases of women who reported domestic violence in 2015 at NGO Sneha’s crisis counselling centre in Dharavi, 159 women also reported, among other issues, marital rape. At Sneha’s counselling centres at KEM and Sion hospitals, of 218 cases of domestic violence received in 2015, 64 women said they had faced marital rape.

While marital rape gets documented in hospitals, cases are rarely registered, since it is excluded from the India Penal Code’s (IPC) definition of rape, says an analysis by Dilaasa, a counselling centre based out of K.B. Bhabha Hospital in Bandra.

Dilaasa analysed 13 cases of sexual violence from the emergency rooms of two of Mumbai’s public hospitals, Rajawadi in Ghatkopar, and Bhabha (where the staff has been trained to identify cases of sexual violence) between 2011 and 2014 and found that only in five instances did the police register a case, mostly under Section 498 (A) (domestic violence), or the contentious Section 377 (unnatural offences). Examples: A 31-year-old reached the hospital with bruises all over her body, and though the police recorded her statement, they didn’t register a case; no case was registered in the case of a 22-year-old whose husband forced sex on her and later even doused her with kerosene. In some cases, the police did not know what to do after a woman reported sexual assault by her husband. Dilaasa’s domestic violence data shows 60% married women report sexual violence, forced sex being its most common form.

Its exclusion from the legal spectrum has also ensured that no cases ever make it to the police hospital at Nagpada, which receives and records all cases of sexual assault including rape. Police surgeon Dr. S.M. Patil says that in the five years that he has been posted at the Nagpada Police Hospital, not a single case has been that of a married woman. “The cases are essentially brought by the police.”

Dilaasa notes, “In almost all the cases, the police delay the collection of medical evidence from these hospitals and also do not wish to record an FIR. Some of these women continued to follow up at the police stations, whereas the rest resorted to changing their address and place of residence to seek anonymity from the spouse.”

Reluctant, but reporting improves

Earlier this month, when Union Minister Maneka Gandhi said that even if there was a law against marital rape, women won’t report it, doctors and counsellors point out that Ms. Gandhi may not be off the mark, but that she missed the complete picture. Nayreen Daruwalla, director with Sneha’s Program on Prevention of Violence against Women and Children, said, “They do not report [marital rape] directly, but talk about it along with the other problems they face, such as husband not giving money.”

At Maharashtra’s largest tertiary care facility, J.J. Hospital, women never mention being subjected to any sexual assault. “Very rarely do patients tell us about marital rape. In a few cases, we see injuries and probe them. They are not aware this is wrong,” said Dr Rekha Davar, head of gynaecology at JJ Hospital.

There is a pattern to the silence: women stay quiet about the assault when young, but are willing to report it at a later stage. Recalling a particularly gruesome case where a man administered electric shocks to his wife’s vagina, lawyer Manisha Tulpule, who handles cases of domestic violence and family matters, said the woman complained after enduring 25 years of this: “The woman was over 50 when she complained.” Ms. Tulpule said that in many cases, women are in their forties when they speak out.

Complaints were even more a rarity in the past. A law might just make women more aware and also give them the confidence to report the matter. “We cannot make the presumption that women will not be comfortable reporting this violence,” said Vrinda Grover, lawyer and women’s rights activist. “Look at 498 (A) – women have reported cruelty in all forms to the court. Women have a greater sense that they should be treated as human beings.” The better awareness and public interest in the topic is reflected in the 13 women documented by Dilaasa who wanted to lodge a police complaint.

As Ms Grover points out, “There is increasing evidence in the form of documentation that there is a high incidence of rape within marriage.” She says it is the responsibility of the legislature and the judiciary to protect women’s rights.

‘Make it a crime’

Senior lawyer Indira Jaising, appointed as amicus curiae on a group of petitions on safety of women following the Delhi gang rape of 2012, has made the need to make marital rape a criminal offence a key recommendation in the brief that she submitted a few months ago, a copy of which is with The Hindu . “Forced sexual intercourse within marriage should be brought within the ambit of definition of rape under Section 375 IPC, by deleting Exception 2,” her recommendation states. (Exception 2 is sexual intercourse by a man with his wife who is aged over 15.) Ms. Jaising also recommended that instead of registering cases under Section 377 of the IPC, which is violative of constitutional provisions, the police should register cases under Section 376.

“When the criminal laws were amended in 2013, I had sought to make it an offence if a separated husband forced himself on his wife (Section 376). Though that was a victory, [the law] doesn’t doesn't take care of women who are not separated,” Ms Jaising said.

In the absence of a law, there is no data on the number of marital rapes cases being reported. “We don't have documentation because police don’t record the complaints and the data can come only when it becomes a law. But even if one woman comes forward, it is still an issue,” said Ms Jaising.

And it’s not just crime and punishment that criminalisation of marital rape will achieve. For many it could also mean a shot at life.

For Asha, who continues to cling to her marriage, being able to file a criminal case against her husband would not only give her justice but ensure the roof over her head stays hers.

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