Arambagh, West Bengal: The four to five days of her period were the only ones when her husband refrained from touching her, and it was a relief, said S*, a housemaid from the town of Arambagh in Hooghly, West Bengal.
In a 3-hour train journey from Arambagh to Haripal and back, the 33-year-old woman told this reporter about the domestic violence and rape she had suffered at her husband's hands for years.
"Sometimes, I think…I was taken by force,” she said. “Someone raped me. I can’t believe it.”
S* said she was the only breadwinner in their family of four, and her husband was unemployed and spent her hard-earned money to buy alcohol, leaving them in poverty most of the time. But her distress was on account of the rape she suffered.
Speaking in a soft yet firm voice, S* said she thinks about asking her husband before he rapes her most nights: “How can you do this? How are you able to treat me in this way?" But she suffered in silence most nights because what would be the point? It could just make things worse for her.
S* said she would wake up in the middle of the night with his weight on top and him putting pressure on her. Sometimes it was in the afternoon.
"I didn't have enough strength to fight back,” she said. “After he would be done, I'd ask how could you do that, but in return, he would silence me with a hard slap on my face".
Not A Crime In India
According to the latest National Family Health Survey (2019-21), nearly one in three Indian women aged 18-49 have suffered spousal abuse, and around six percent have suffered sexual violence.
The survey was conducted in around 6.37 lakh sample households in 707 districts in 28 states and eight union territories, covering 7,24,115 women and 1,01,839 men.
The term "marital rape" refers to the unwanted sexual relationship between a man and his wife that was either gained with the use of physical force, the threat of physical force, or both when the victim could not consent. Any type of penetration, whether anal, vaginal, or oral, done against the victim's will or without her agreement is called "unwanted intercourse."
In India, rape is de facto (from the fact) but not de jure (from the law). Marital rape is not included in the definition of rape under section 375 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860. According to exception 2 of section 375, sexual contact between a man and his own wife who is over the age of fifteen is not considered rape.
This is based on the idea that a woman has no legal authority to forbid having sex with her husband once they get married. This violates human rights norms by granting men the freedom to have sexual relations with their wives and permitting them to rape them.
As a result, marital rape remains a largely unrecognised and underreported crime in India. It is merely considered a kind of domestic abuse under the criteria provided by the Protection of Women from Domestic Abuse Act, 2005.
This Act is a civil statute that solely offers the wife civil remedies for crimes like physical abuse, sexual abuse (humiliates, degrades or otherwise violates the dignity of women), verbal and emotional abuse, and economic abuse.
Women often suffer in silence due to societal stigma, cultural norms, and lack of awareness about their rights.
In September 2020, researchers from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences and the University of Maryland published a study that found that 32% of married young women in India aged 15-24 experienced unwanted sex with their husbands in the past 12 months, with 12% experiencing it frequently. Marital rape was associated with lower education, autonomy, lower spousal communication, and higher spousal violence.
In June 2022, researchers from the Boston University School of Public Health published a study examining the association between marital rape and mental health in India, finding that marital rape was significantly associated with clinical depression and PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder).
Courts In India
Courts in India have taken a regressive stand, saying the exception clause is based on the “legitimate expectation of sex” and that it protects the institution of marriage. There have been some exceptions, like the Karnataka High Court in December 2022 upheld the framing of charges against a husband accused of raping his wife, saying that “marital rape is a crime and a violation of the dignity and autonomy of the woman”.
Justice M Nagaprasanna observed that a brutal act of sexual assault on the wife, against her consent, by the husband cannot be termed anything but rape and that such an act has grave consequences on the mental and physical health of the wife. The court also said that the exception clause in Section 375 of the IPC, which exempts marital rape from being considered a crime, is not applicable in this case, as the wife had left the marital home and was living separately from the husband, and there was no assumption of consent.
The Delhi High Court in May 2023 delivered a split verdict with one judge, Justice Rajiv Shakdher, stating that the exception clause in Section 375 of the IPC violates the rights of married women to equality, dignity, and bodily integrity.
Shakdher argued that the clause was unconstitutional and violated the fundamental rights of married women. At the same time, the other judge, Justice C Hari Shankar, upheld the validity of the exception clause, stating it did not violate any constitutional provision or international convention. Shankar argued that the exception was based on implied consent in marriage, not discriminatory or arbitrary and that the court should not interfere with it. The court granted leave for the parties to file an appeal before the Supreme Court, and the status quo would continue until the Supreme Court decided the matter.
At least three petitions filed between 2015 and 2022 challenging marital rape are pending before the Supreme Court, which has listed the matter for mid-October. A petition challenging the Karnataka High Court’s order that allowed the prosecution of a man for raping his wife is also pending before the apex court.
Scared To Leave
Twenty years old, when she was forced by her father into an arranged marriage, S* was one of three siblings, and they grew up poor.
S* said her husband started beating her because he wanted her family to give him more to build a house for them.
“He beat me with any hard metals he could find near him,” she said.
In 13 years of marriage, she had two children. Today, her teenage daughter works as a housemaid, and her son is five.
For the first decade of the violence, S* was in shock. After a while, she stopped expecting any mercy or help. In the last few years, even though she is the primary earner, S* has begun to resent that she must stay for her physical and social security. Afraid of divorce and its uncertainty, she dared not leave her husband.
"Initially, we resided in a room on the first floor, my husband and I. Early on, when I was still a naive one, and I got beaten up or was molested by him every alternate day, I would run downstairs to tell his parents,” said S*. “But it hit me hard when my father-in-law reprimanded me indignantly that there's no need to come downstairs to them constantly and advised me to settle this out upstairs, behind closed doors."
S* spoke stoically until her eyes welled up with tears while sharing that she hoped it would stop.
S* said she tried losing herself in her work and welcomed the days she had her period.
It has been nearly three years since A*, a woman in Delhi, left her husband, but her loud sobs betrayed the raw and festering pain of the five years of marital rape she suffered.
They fell in love at university, but only after marriage did she learn about his smoking and drinking. Their relationship soured after a fight before her family, and he started beating her.
A*, a 36-year-old content creator with a Delhi-based media company, said her husband, an employee in a corporate firm, would demand sex after they fought, saying, “Am I not your husband? Don't I deserve this?"
“He always seemed to be saying that he had to punch me because of something I had said or done and that the only way for me to make amends was to allow him to force himself on me,” she said.
A* filed for divorce in 2016 and fought hard before she was granted custody of her two daughters by the Delhi High Court in 2021.
" I’m a self-dependent woman who earns for herself. I don't need marriage to provide me with any social security,” said A*. “It was only a cloud of love and worry to bring up my children that kept me blinded and made me tolerate all the nonsense in silence. But now, it has gone. I know what I must do not to protect myself but my children."
Trying To Look Forward
N*, a 38-year-old sweeper, said she had been married for more than 20 years to her husband, who runs a kebab restaurant. He still rapes her, and some of his family members beat her.
After she tried standing up for herself, N* said, “The nights have become worse ever since. He penetrated me one night, gagged my mouth, and entered. ‘I will rape you as long as you are here,’ he declared. This body is mine till you depart or divorce me.’”
N*, who has an 18-year-old son, said that she did not have a good relationship with her son for a long time because, for a long time, he reminded her of the crime that was being inflicted on her. But now she had grown to love him.
N* said that for the longest time, she couldn’t think about divorce because she could not support herself and was afraid of the social stigma, but now her brother is helping her look for a lawyer, but the idea of divorce still frightens her.
“Divorce is still something I fear,” she said. “It's not about the money, but rather, where can my son and I find a secure place to live? Eighteen is a young age for my son. Who will take responsibility for our social security?”
(Ankita Banerjee is a freelance journalist and a student at AJK Mass Communication And Research Centre Jamia Milia Islamia. She reports on social and developmental issues in India from different states.)
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