Nirmala* had just reached the legal age for marriage when her conservative Tamil family promised her to a wealthy man 17 years older than her. She was excited: finally she could bid goodbye to poverty.
But on her wedding night, and every night after, her husband would force himself on her despite her protests of pain, or her apparent unhappiness about their sexual relations. Sometimes, he would inflict trauma, forcing foreign objects into her and making her enact pornographic videos. She miscarried several times due to the violence.
When she turned to her mother for help, she was told, repeatedly, that this was normal: if he didn’t express his sexual urges to her, where else would the “poor man” go? She was asked to comply. She was told to be a “good wife”.
Sexual violence – which includes marital rape – is just one of the many types of violence women face from husbands. In India, it is acceptable for a man to abuse his wife. It is also legal for him to rape her, though the Supreme Court, on October 11, held that sexual intercourse by a man with his wife, who is below 18 years of age, is rape regardless of consent. The case pertains to the challenging of Exception 2 of the rape law – Section 375 of the IPC (Indian Penal Code) – which read: “Sexual intercourse or sexual acts by a man with his own wife, the wife not being under 15 years of age, is not rape.” The court, however, refrained from dealing with the issue of marital rape of a woman aged above 18.
The Delhi High Court is currently hearing a hotly argued case, challenging the marital rape exception in its entirety, and the Centre is fighting it saying it could lead to “misuse”, “destabilize the institution of marriage” and become “an easy tool for harassing the husbands”. In the most recent hearing on January 2, the Court responded to a submission stating that Marital rape is illegal in 52 countries, by questioning if there was any study to discern the impact of criminalisation. But in all this, there is another elephant in the room: spousal violence.
A look at the numbers
While spousal violence in itself is not a holistic indication of marital rape, it is the closest one gets to such data in India. “When rape inside a marriage is not considered a criminal offence under any law, why will women complain about it? How will such data be recorded?” questions Sheila Jayaprakash, lawyer, Chennai family court.
The National Crime Records Bureau shows that there were about 1.1 lakh cases registered against husbands and their relatives for crimes against women across the country, alongside 7,634 cases of dowry deaths in 2015.
Shockingly, it turns out that Tamil Nadu, considered a progressive state, actually has one of the highest figures of spousal violence recorded in the country at 41%, surpassing even Uttar Pradesh (37%), Madhya Pradesh (33%) and Maharashtra (21%), according to the National Family Health Survey (2015-2016) (NFHS4).
Of the 36 states and union territories surveyed, only Manipur (53%) and Bihar (43%) from the North beat Tamil Nadu in numbers. In the south, it stands second, after Telangana and Andhra Pradesh both at 43%, with Karnataka and Kerala reporting 20.5% and 14%.
The NFHS4 data corroborates the opinion of experts in the field who say marital violence is not dependent on factors such as poverty and literacy. According to it, women’s literacy in Tamil Nadu stood at 79%, as against the national average of 68%. Additionally, 77% women had a bank or savings account they themselves operated, while the statistic stood at 53% in national figures.
High awareness, higher acceptance
“There’s usually a large gulf between national crime data and local victimisation surveys. [But] the high numbers are not [necessarily] a bad sign,” says Beulah Shekhar, head of department, criminology and criminal justice, Manonmaniam Sundaranar University, Tirunelveli. “It shows that there’s awareness. Women can identify that what is happening to them is violence; this contributes to more reporting.” Shekhar, also coordinator of victimology and victim assistance at the university, observes that many women rescued from violent families think it’s normal to be abused and beaten.
Paradoxically, awareness need not be linked to literacy and financial independence. For example: Bihar, which reports higher spousal violence than Tamil Nadu (43%), has lower female literacy levels (50%). Shekhar attributes awareness to the impact of NGOs as well as women’s police stations, protection officers, self-help groups, and state government initiatives.
“The reported cases are just the tip of the iceberg – just about one in 10 cases are registered,” explains Bimla Chandrasekar, social worker and director of Ekta Resource Centre for Women, Madurai. “Some women from working class rural communities say they want to file a complaint, but change their stance once they come under pressure from their parents, children and neighbours.” FIRs, in such cases, are not filed.
This attitude cuts across classes. Chandrasekar encounters college-educated, financially independent professionals who seek counselling, reporting spousal violence. When asked why they don’t leave their abusive husbands, they are hesitant to come back and discuss the issue, she says. “Despite our state’s high literacy rate, teaching respect for the body’s integrity is not a priority in educational institutions. Love is romanticised and sex not talked about.”
Shekhar adds that while women from lower socio-economic strata are very vocal about spousal violence, those from middle class families actually worry more about social status and stigma. They also don’t have acceptance in their maternal homes because it brings shame. “So they remain silent, hoping the violence will go away.” Cultural attitudes, where women’s tolerance of violence is taught to be a virtue, need to change, she says.
The recorded numbers, overall, are just not reflective of the whole picture.
Problematic patriarchal ideas
Anecdotal evidence points to the usual suspects for Tamil Nadu’s high spousal violence rate: male aggression, normalisation of problematic patriarchal attitudes in cinema and television, and cheap and easily available alcohol. Says Chandrasekar, “Men get into debt because of alcoholism and demand money from their wives, which soon turns to violence.” Tamil cinema, in turn, normalises and glorifies alcoholism in men, and often depicts women as accepting of their abusive behaviour.
But experts demur from blaming only alcohol. Beulah Azariah, head of ECOMWEL (The Emmaus Community Welfare Fund), who was part of the anti-arrack movement that swept the state ahead of the 2016 Assembly elections, says, “Men engage in domestic violence because they can get away with it. They don’t get drunk and beat up their neighbours just as often, do they? They use violence as a tool to control women’s mobility, income, information, sexuality and communication.”
The prevalent patriarchal perception that a married woman is her husband’s property is most problematic. An Oxfam report on the NHFS surveys illustrates this point: more than half the men and women surveyed said it is justifiable for a husband to beat his wife under some circumstances: disrespect of in-laws, neglect of the house or children, for example.
“To thwart these occurrences, it is not severity of punishment that is important, but rather the certainty of it,” says Shekhar.
A culture of silence
Certainty of punishment, however, is a far cry when the law still refuses to acknowledge certain crimes committed against women, including marital rape. “When we talk about it, women in rural communities laugh because they find it absurd,” says Shekhar. “They see their role within the family as centred around satisfying the man, so it becomes a point of internal conflict when we say marital rape is a violation.”
“When women report sexual violence and rape within marriage, they are often blamed for being unable to keep their husbands happy,” says Swetha Shankar, Crisis Counsellor, PCVC (International Foundation For Crime Prevention and Victim Care), Chennai. This organisation sees over 450 cases of domestic violence a year on average, where women in over half the cases speak of sexual violence and marital rape, even though they do not term it so. “Retrograde systems refuse to acknowledge their trauma and instead pressure them to keep the marriage intact for the sake of society, children, etc.,” says Shankar.
Like in the case of Malar*, a 24-year-old woman from Chennai, who was repeatedly raped and subjected to appalling sexual humiliation by her satyr husband, whom she married for love. When she told her parents, she was told, “You chose your husband. Stop complaining and deal with it.”
Her gynaecologist went one step further. “There is nothing called rape in marriage. Your husband owns your body.” Her divorce order succinctly stated incompatibility as the problem: “There is no record of violence on part of the husband. The wife represents a tendency towards psychological impotence or female sexual dysfunction.”
Kirthi Jayakumar, activist and founder of The Red Elephant Foundation, Chennai, that has an ongoing campaign against marital rape, blames the silencing of women for their lack of awareness on the subject. “We have a culture of telling girls to shut up and hush up men’s transgressions. Because of this, society isn’t aware of their stories and they, in turn, don’t have safe spaces to discuss their experiences.”
Inevitably, Jayakumar and activists like her routinely face rape and death threats from online trolls for taking a vocal stand on marital rape. In the battle for criminalisation of marital rape in the Delhi HC, the Centre’s submission said “defining marital rape would call for a broad based consensus of society.” When women’s voices are stifled across strata, how is this truly possible?
Challenging silence with the law
“Every law that’s for women is said to be misused. We need to debate if it is truly so or have more women stopped accepting violence against them because the law offers them a redressal mechanism,” reflects advocate Sheila. She draws attention to the fact that even though the IPC is over 150 years old, laws which address violence against women in the family sphere have only been introduced in the past few decades – think Dowry Prohibition Act (1961), IPC section 498A (1983) and the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act (2005).
The Centre, in its arguments, seeks to protect husbands, completely overlooking the wife’s individual agency and rights over her body. This is a stand taken from a male point of view, upholding patriarchal values and disregarding Constitutional rights.
If women who refuse to suffer in silence are supported instead of shamed, there will be more awareness about abuse and higher reporting of violence. Encouraging them to speak out will be the first step in empowering them. To do so, the law needs to change and support them as well.
Names changed to protect identity. Survivor stories are reproduced with permission from testimonies given to The Red Elephant Foundation.