An offence, of course

It is a cry that is often muffled within the walls of a home, and one that cannot find justice easily even when it reaches the hallowed halls of our courts. For marital rape is still not spelt out as an offence in India. Which is why, when the government conveyed to the Supreme Court the necessity to treat forced sex between husband and wife as rape and amend laws accordingly the proposal was made a couple of years ago by the Law Commission the sense of urgency with which we have to respond to violence against women calls for reiteration.

Section 375 of the IPC archaically qualifies sexual intercourse between husband and wife as rape only if the wife is less than 15 years old.

Women have to take recourse to 498-A of the IPC to protect themselves against "perverse sexual conduct by the husband", or to the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act. A serious debate on marital rape, combined with a willingness to change laws, began again last year, when the department of legal affairs drafted the Criminal Law (Amendment) Bill, based on recommendations of the women and child development ministry and the National Commission for Women. The intention was to amend various sections of the IPC, the Criminal Procedure Code, and the Indian Evidence Act to recognise new categories of sexual assault. We can no longer afford to dither on this. We need to debate this as well, without treating marital rape as taboo or resorting to euphemisms, but looking at it as a social, criminal problem.

Along with legal amendments, there's a need to increase the likelihood that abused wives learn of legal remedies available but the former does not have to wait for the realisation of the latter. Awareness could stem from a judicial acknow-ledgement of women's rights and gender justice. An understanding of marriage as an institution that automatically presupposes sexual consent on the part of the woman is both patriarchal and archaic, and should be treated so. Rape is an act of humiliation. And a No is a No in a marriage or outside it. It is a right that should be recognised.

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