Do no harm: 8 don’ts for the fight against gender violence

(This article first appeared on the DNA website on November 25, 2016, on the first day of the 2016 Prajnya 16 Days Campaign against Gender Violence. It is reposted here as an option for those who find the original image-heavy page hard to access.)

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Do no harm: 8 don’ts for the fight against gender violence

Swarna Rajagopalan

We appear to be on the cusp of an age where it is not acceptable to endorse gender-based violence in public. This is not our destination—the elimination of gender-based violence—but it is a few steps down the path from a few decades ago when a column on the subject may have used genteel euphemisms and lamented the loss of virtue of our sisters and daughters. This unprecedented promise of a consensus must be celebrated and International Day for the Elimination of All Forms of Violence against Women (November 25) presents a great opportunity.

This year, I would like to offer a list of “Don’ts” (or rather, “Let’s nots”) in the struggle to end sexual and gender-based violence.

1. Let’s not protect women

“How can we keep women safe?” or “Can you give some tips to women to stay safe?” may be the most common questions we get asked in the course of our gender violence awareness work in Chennai. Fair enough, we are all concerned about the safety of those we love. However, the protectionist approach is problematic. First, it robs women of their own agency— that is, their ability to think and decide for themselves what they want to do. Second, it equates them (us) with other things we want to keep safe— our keys, our papers, our money or our address books! Third, it ends up limiting their freedom in ways that have terrible consequences for their lives. From being draped in so much cloth that you cannot run or swim to safety to not being able to go to school or to work, all because you may not be safe, thinking that something might happen along the way— the impulse to protect is experienced as the will to stifle. Fourth, protection presumes there are safe places in the world. A girl is safe because she is home. A woman is safe because she only sees the men of her family. In an age when even the womb is not a safe place for female offspring, this is a dangerous illusion. Finally, protectionism is a form of denial. The problem is not with those who are vulnerable to violence—regardless of gender—but with those inclined to use violence as a means of demonstrating control or even a normal language of human interaction. The problem is social inequality, in this case caused by patriarchy. By focusing on protection, we choose not to address the real problem at all.

2. Let’s not talk about women being our mothers, sisters and daughters

Women are human beings.When an incident of violence happens, well-meaning individuals speak up against it, and one of the most common responses in India relates the victim to family: “She was someone’s daughter” or “We all have mothers, sisters and daughters at home” or “The government needs to explain why our sisters and daughters are not safe.” Family is very important to most Indians. However, violence is something to condemn regardless of who experiences violence and whether or not she is a mother, daughter or sister. Sometimes, people say of a rape victim, “She should have addressed him/them as ‘brother,’ he/they would have left her alone.” What we know about child abuse and incestuous rape belies that hope. An attack on a family member—anyone’s family member—is read as an attack on their honour. This view makes sexual violence during conflict situations (including communal violence) seem perfectly logical—attack a woman’s body and you actually attack the collective honour of a community. The point is that an incident of violence is not unequivocally wrong because it hurts somebody’s relative or someone’s notion of their honour but because it hurts a human being.

3. Let’s not talk about hanging and shooting people

Something in us hankers for the old ways of justice. “An eye for an eye,” as the Bible phrases it, suggests that reciprocity is justice. It sounds immediate, decisive and punitive in a way that Indian courts have not been. Filing a complaint takes a long time and justice sometimes remains a dream. In such a context, we vacillate between wanting instant, summary and harsh justice and a frightening indulgence, especially when the accused is powerful. The indulgence is unconscionable because we know that if a person is able to get away with sexual harassment or violence once, they are likely to try it again. Silence and indulgence create a trail of victim/survivors where there should be none. On the other hand, calls for castration, public execution or a shooting gallery are also red flags. When I was very young and attending one of India’s first feminist conferences with older cousins, I remember hearing this argument against mandating very harsh punishments— that judges would hesitate to convict someone. There was, we were told, a better chance of getting a conviction with a moderate sentence. A greater likelihood of conviction might serve as a better deterrent than a rare conviction with a very harsh sentence. After all, summary and violent justice in centuries past has not cured us of our will to dominate through violence.

4. Let’s not underestimate men

Patriarchy gives men very little credit, molly-coddling them in a million ways. All the advantages they are meant to enjoy also end up limiting their potential as human beings. Time and again, in conversations about legal protections against gender violence, women worry about how they will make men vulnerable to false accusations. We tend to respond by explaining that the percentage of false cases is relatively low. The argument we should be making is this: Men can and should be trusted to think that gender-based violence or sexual harassment are serious enough violations to create redressal processes and guarantees of justice. We should give them credit, as thinking and caring human beings, for understanding that every law or regulation comes with the potential for misuse but that is not an argument against trying to deliver justice. Traffic and taxation are classic examples, and yet we have not abandoned traffic regulations or tax.

Patriarchy trains us to have unrealistic expectations of each other, regardless of gender. Thus it happens that the resistance to transforming gender relations comes as much from women as it does from men. The resistance comes from the habit of protecting men and it also comes from women’s own comfort level with patriarchy, having grown up in its shade. This sometimes leads us to invite men into our struggles not as partners but to lend it the authority patriarchy invests in them. Men can be partners and apprentices too; their commitment to change need not be contingent on leadership roles.

5. Let’s not be limited by patriarchy in the solutions we seek

We are all products of a patriarchal society, even when we reject it. It shapes our self-images, our relationships and our ways of being more than we would like to admit. Nowhere is the stranglehold of this iniquitous system greater than in the way we imagine justice. For many of us, the most outrageous instance is the idea that when a rapist marries his survivor, justice has been done. There is a rationale for this judgement—which is that the survivor has to go back to live in a society for which the damage to family honour and her marriage prospects outweigh her own trauma. The hardship caused by stigma is assessed as being greater than the trauma caused by violence. This is admittedly a realistic understanding of the world, but do we want to understand such a world so well that we are unable to change it? Instead, if people in positions of authority could speak up against such views and if judges would temper a different judgement with a reasoned argument, perhaps we would inch towards different social outcomes. In short, if patriarchy is going to dictate to us what is right and what is feasible, we will never be able to escape its clutches. We need to be able to ignore its very loud ‘voice of reason’ that booms at us with great conviction and free our imagination of justice.

6. Let’s not forget that gender violence is part of a larger social complex of injustice

The fight against gender violence is one part of the campaign for gender equality which in turn is a part of our on-going quest for social justice— so that all our iniquities are implicated in perpetuating each other. Moreover, all of us have more than one identity at a time— among other things, I am a woman, a Bombayite, a person who enjoys great class and caste privilege, presently resident in Chennai, an academic, a Tamil-speaker, an Elphinstonian, an NGO person, a South Asian, an Indian, a middle-aged person, and, of course, a human being. All my identities intersect as much as all forms of injustice reinforce each other. This is what younger feminists call intersectionality, a new word for an old idea. Previous generations learnt this idea as a key Marxist contribution to thinking about society. Look at structures, we learned; they impact each other and transform how people live and work and interact across their various identities. Fix the structures, we were told, to fix the injustice. Therefore, while concern about women may be immediate and most important to someone, women’s rights cannot be won in isolation of other people’s rights, and gender justice is incomplete without other forms of social justice. It’s just arithmetic: no one is equal unless everyone is.

7. Let’s not adjust to violence for any reason

Indians love the word ‘adjust;’ we urge each other to adjust to anything— no change, wrong size, less salt, bad toilets, no water, abusive speech, demonetization and interpersonal violence, to name a few things to which we are best advised to adjust. We teach young girls to adjust their personalities so that they do not outshine the men in the room. We adjust to discrimination because that is just our karma. We have proverbs that justify anger in men— an angry man is a just man, for instance. “If she took better care of her house, he would not beat her.” “You should understand that men face frustrations at work.” “It must be so hard for him to have to ask for help all the time.” Understand. Adjust. “Things will be alright once you have children.” Adjust, until then. If we are serious about ending gender violence, we should stop adjusting to it. There is no justification—absolutely no justification—for violent behaviour. Violence is not an acceptable language in human (or any) relationships.

8. Let’s not delegate responsibility for eliminating gender violence

“If we had better laws, we would not have so much violence.” Or, “laws are the problem; we have lousy laws.”

“On the other hand, our laws are excellent, but they are not implemented.”

“Law enforcement in India is terrible.”

“The police are corrupt, the police are insensitive, the police are brutal, the police are hand-in-glove with politicians, the police are retrogressive.”

“Don’t blame policemen, they are paid so badly. What about our courts?”

“Such a backlog, such delay— justice delayed, justice denied. What do lawyers care?”

“And those politicians! The statements they make!”

“Media, my god, the media are so irresponsible!”

“What are you NGOs doing? You should be out there fighting for all the poor victims!”

There may be more than a kernel of truth in all these statements but there is one truth that never gets listed— we are the problem. We have laws and rights but we do not bother to learn about them. We do not educate ourselves to recognise or understand the problem. When faced with the reality of gender violence, we pick platitudes and denial. We do not want to know too much about bystander intervention because, my god, would you actually want to get involved? If we do not recognise that we have a problem, we cannot invoke the laws that will get us justice. So where we sit, we are still far from the police, the lawyers and the courts we dismiss. We do not care enough to learn about support services nor to volunteer with them or raise funds for them. Content to adjust to and ignore a problem, we are complicit every time someone suffers physical, emotional or any other kind of abuse. And this makes US a problem without a solution. And so I will end with my first ‘do’ in this article: Let’s take responsibility.

If we are aware of these ‘don’ts’ as we commit to this important cause, we make a constructive beginning. Let’s take responsibility and let’s do this right!

Swarna Rajagopalan is a political scientist by training. She founded Prajnya which organises the Prajnya 16 Days Campaign against Gender Violence, a public education initiative on sexual and gender-based violence, from November 25-December 10 every year.

 

The Inclusive Classroom

THE INCLUSIVE CLASSROOM

Teaching Peace Values to Prevent Gender Violence

by Priyadarshini Rajagopalan

There is a lot of talk in education about creating an ‘inclusive educational environment’ in schools. This term immediately suggests the process of integrating children with special educational needs into a regular classroom.[i] However, that would be a very narrow view of the term inclusive as it presupposes that the existing population of the classroom is ‘included’.

Inclusion in its entirety is not just about sharing space, but about respecting differences, accepting individuality and disallowing stereotypes. If that is true, then it is about creating an environment where there is no discrimination, intentional or otherwise, of race, socio economic status, ability or gender, to name a few. While some inequalities are apparent and therefore consciously addressed, many practices go unnoticed either because they are steeped in the culture of our society or because people are unaware of its role in perpetuating stereotypes. Skewed gender perspectives, unfortunately, go unnoticed for both reasons.

So where does it all begin? In many parts of the world, it begins with the color of the room and motifs on the nursery wall, while in others it begins with the name and preferential treatment for one gender, or the presence of stereotypical role models. The list is endless, but the result is similar; children learn early on in life that regardless of how many women police officers they see, the word ‘police’ is almost always associated with a male first.

To quote a 6 year old:

I know what a tomcat is; it’s a girl cat that thinks it’s a boy.”

I think this sets the stage for reflection. At six, this child had generalised the idea of a ‘tomboy’ and applied that belief to a tomcat. One can only assume that she had been called a ‘tomboy’ one too many times, thus the generalisation. This stereotyping of what girls are like and not like begins early[ii]. While not everyone is consciously teaching this divide, the message gets across.

Let us look at this language. If we are to try and break down ‘tomboy’ into specific characteristics, the list may read as follows:

  • Physically active – enjoys high-energy physical activity, including sports
  • Outspoken – shares ideas loudly, vocal about views
  • Practical clothing style – prefers comfortable clothing that allows for movement

Is there anything particularly related to ’boy’ here? We can say this about many people regardless of gender. While the behaviour is not necessarily gender specific, the cultural connotation is. Society has its ‘norms’ for girl behaviour and boy behaviour; therefore, displaying one not associated with your gender warrants a label.

So, what seems like an innocuous remark, in realty, hides century-old biases and goes on to contaminate many areas of gender equality. From this stem many other gender assumptions on what are considered male vs. female occupations to idiomatic language usage such as ‘girly’, ‘macho’ and  ‘effeminate’ among others.

Sometimes, the environment subtly suggests a ‘gender’ appropriateness where there should be none. For example, a friend reported how a student of hers saw a young man waiting for an interview with the Principal of the school and asked him what he was here for. The man replied that he had come to apply for the position of a teacher. The boy, all of 8 years, told him “don’t bother, she will not hire you as a teacher, you can be the gardener or watchman or bus driver but not a teacher.” Obviously, his remark came from his observations of the school environment.

Add to these the numerous intentional ways gender roles are typified and we have the makings of a generation growing up believing that the ‘male ‘and ‘female’ domains are markedly different. That men are meant to be a certain way. This belief leads to many practices, from tolerating violence to resigning oneself to many discriminations. For example, if we did find the two genders sharing equal space and responsibility at work, they are more than likely to be perceived and treated differently. This may lead to a possible pay gap between the genders.

The reason such phenomena exist is because somehow, somewhere, generations of women are willing to believe that men should be paid more to do the same job they do, because ‘they do it better’, ‘they have a family to support on their earnings’, ‘they are better leaders’ and a multitude of other such justifications. This continues to happen in hospitals, schools and in most spaces where men and women can hold comparable positions.[iii]. And yes! There are still professions that will not allow women to even apply to certain high-ranking positions.

Since a child’s first exposure to society is through home and school, if adults in these environments can become conscious of the messages that imply a gender imbalance and work towards changing them, then the child has something to compare with and question outside influences.

There are some direct and indirect ways to do this. While the skill of using non-judgmental language can be actively taught, that of acceptance and respect are better modelled. However, for both, it is important that adults be equally cognizant of their own views and ensure that they only influence children in a positive manner.

Becoming conscious and cautious with language usage is one way, as many gender biases can be perpetuated just by unintentional utterings. Adults can go a step further and challenge and discuss any preconceived idea a child may have been exposed to. This will ensure that children clarify their own thoughts and have the vocabulary and arguments to challenge these notions elsewhere.

Another way to move forward would be to make informed choices for content children are exposed to, and review/modify it if needed. To take an example from lessons at school, often the top 5  ‘inventions and inventors’‘ mentioned in text books are male, particularly if it is a scientific or mathematical invention. Having resources for students to have access to many examples, including different genders, would certainly open their mind to the possibility.

Teachers can also consciously encourage all students across all subject areas and activities. The classic line – ’girls are bad at math’ or ‘girls don’t like math’ is easy to spot and change. However, we often don’t realise how something as simple as inviting girls to decorate something or boys to help lift a table is strengthening the gender myth. It is these small impressions that can later form stereotypes. At home, not many parents spontaneously call boys to help them cut vegetables or set the table. Parents have different rules for how late their child can stay out at a friend’s place based on their gender. There are many such examples that adults need to become conscious of. That is not to say we must be contrived and begin calling only boys to cut vegetables and only girls to mow the lawn, but that we must, until it comes naturally to us, consciously offer the choice to either gender.

Another important example to set for children is for adults to stand up against biases and discrimination. As it is often said, gender violence is not just about the perpetrator, but also the silent spectators and victims who choose to tolerate the violence and don’t speak up about it. A simple step to intervene, offer/seek help and find solutions to a situation goes a long way in helping children feel empowered to do the same.

Acceptance is best demonstrated when adults treat other adults in the environment, regardless of skill, ability, gender, occupation etc., with respect. In schools, this may be as simple as making the effort to thank whoever performs a service for you, be it the person tending the garden or a teacher. The same applies to adult-child interactions as well.

There are several ways adults can help children experience a balanced gender approach in schools[iv]. To highlight a few:

  • survey and clear the environment of subtle biases
  • become conscious of one’s own views and behaviours[v]
  • consciously change and challenge discriminatory behavior
  • use non-judgmental, unbiased language[vi]
  • encourage dialogue, debate and discussions on issues of equality
  • internalize the message offered by role models

Therefore, while it would be great to have everyone treat all genders as one, it must begin with individual effort. If each committed adult consciously stops perpetuating myths, then at some point this cycle should stop.

(Priyadarshini Rajagopalan is a Montessori educator and has been a part of Prajnya’s Education for Peace Initiative since its inception.)

[i]http://www.specialeducationguide.com/pre-k-12/inclusion/

[ii]http://www.education.com/reference/article/gender-bias-in-teaching/

[iii]http://siteresources.worldbank.org/INTWDR2012/Resources/7778105-1299699968583/7786210-1315936222006/chapter-5.pdf

[iv]https://www.dropbox.com/s/1wpo37oz3wv3nan/Gender%20Inclusive%20Schools%20Toolkit.pdf?dl=0

[v]https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/education.html

[vi]http://ielgroup.weebly.com/inclusive-vs-exclusive-language.html

Education, Gender and Violence: The 2016 Blog Symposium

This year’s campaign blog symposium centres around the global 16 Days of Activism theme: “From Peace in the Home to Peace in the World: Make Education Safe for All!”

The blogposts we’ve compiled are primarily reflections on how education can be made more inclusive and how teaching inclusiveness can be a way to prevent gender violence. We also have an interview with Vidya Reddy of Tulir, whose pioneering work with schools has put child sexual abuse on the social change agenda.

 

End Impunity for Crimes Against Journalists

Recently, a journalist in Karnataka received rape threats online, reportedly after she wrote about allegations against a godman. Chetana Thirthahalli was sent lewd messages and threats, and those targeting her demanded that she stop ‘writing critically on Hindu issues’.

Sadly, this is not an isolated incident. With the relative anonymity that the Internet provides, rape threats are becoming increasingly common on social media sites. The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe says, it’s alarmed by how women journalists are singled out and attacked more than anyone else.

OSCE Representative of the Freedom of the Media, Dunja Mijatovic says, “The female journalists targeted most report on crime, politics and sensitive – and sometimes painful – issues, including taboos and dogmas in our societies. These online attacks tend not to address the content of the articles but instead degrade the journalist as a woman. For some female journalists, online threats of rape and sexual violence have become part of everyday life; others experience severe sexual harassment and intimidation. Misogynist speech is flourishing.”

In a report on mxm India, Ranjona Banerjee says, “Women remain easy targets on social media and women in journalism even easier. The easiest way to attack is of course by sexual innuendo because then it reduces women to one aspect of their existence: their genitalia and/or their reproductive uses.”

(Read CPJ’s detailed Journalist Security Guide.)

The online attacks are an addition to the threats to safety that women journalists face. They are stalked, raped and murdered while doing their jobs. (Read: Violence and Harassment Against Women in News Media by IWMF). In an interview to The Quint, NDTV Senior Editor Maya Mirchandani said, “A protest at India Gate can be more dangerous than a war zone. Honestly, in a war zone, gender is less of a handicap, it is harder to protect yourself in a civilian environment.”

Meanwhile, the media also needs to introspect on the sexism and sexual violence within the industry. The Tehelka case opened a can of worms, but the issue has been forgotten since. The International Federation of Journalists ‘media and gender’ country report says, “In India, the well-established and strong media landscape is full of women journalists. Yet while the advantage of class, caste and higher education has seen some women climb to the top rungs of the profession, the majority of women journalists today are still concentrated on the middle and lower rungs of the profession. Sexual harassment remains a critical issue for the industry. So too, while more men are found in full-time contract roles, large numbers of women in the country are moving or being pushed into freelance roles.”

(Read: Best Practices to Prevent Sexual Harassment at the Workplace by Vibhuti Patel)

Gender Violence: The Health Impact: Child Sexual Abuse & Health Care Systems

An Interview with Vidya Reddy, Tulir

by Meera Srikant

Despite advancements in medicine in the country, there are not enough mid-level mental health professionals trained to work with children who have experienced sexual violence.

  1. You work with children who have experienced sexual violence. Is our healthcare system equipped to provide them with the required care?

The healthcare system is definitely equipped where treatment of physical injuries is concerned. It is in fact families who are diffident to seek help unless there is blood and gore. If there are no physical injuries, then they do not even seek medical help. They are worried about the stigma attached to those who experience sexual violence

On the other hand, even medical professionals are diffident in our country to deal with sexual violence. Though treating cases of sexual violence is part of medical curriculum, they are not sufficiently trained.

There is a government guideline from the Ministry of Health, Government of India, specifying that private and government hospitals must provide treatment to those coming to them for treatment following sexual violence. The Government of Tamil Nadu has passed an order based on this advising heads of departments of government hospitals about treatment for such cases. However, while it refers to private hospitals in para 2 of the order, in para 3, it only mentions government hospitals. This can cause some confusion and we are bringing it to the notice of the authorities concerned to have this rectified.

This is required because currently, hospitals are too wary to treat children who come to them because of sexual violence. One, because there is diffidence in our society about discussing sexuality itself, and the doctors and nurses  are drawn from this society and have a similar attitude. There is greater diffidence about discussing sexual violence, and even more so when it is with reference to a child! And then the need to deal with courts since every assault case needs to be reported becomes a deterrent.

But while healthcare in our state, especially, may be equipped to handle the consequences of the assault on the body,  the mental health aspects of sexual assault leaves a lot to be desired.

  1. You mean we do not have enough mental health professionals?

We do not have enough mid-level mental health professionals. We have psychiatrists who are pharmacologised in their approach, or counsellors. Anybody in a position to advice is called a counsellor. I think counselling is the most abused word in our country. We have a counsellor for everything, but they don’t have an understanding of the dynamics and effects of sexual violence! One counsellor, for instance, told me that she counselled children who were victims on how to “handle” the situation. They are children, how can they “handle” the situation? The entire society around them needs to be mobilised to give them support and address the situation appropriately, which would also mean making the abuser accountable! The onus should never be on the child.

Even social workers are not trained to deal with cases of sexual violence, and there is also stigma attached to such work. We are a two-member team at Tulir because women who come for interviews back off the moment they hear the work involves sexual violence. They believe their marriage prospects will diminish!

Social sector is dominated with women, with men mostly in managerial positions. Therefore, there are not enough men to address boys experience sexual violence. Sadly, there are almost as many boys as girls who are subjected to sexual violence.

  1. What would you say are some of the challenges today?

Only children under 12 are seen by pediatricians. Girls of any age who experience sexual violence are referred to obstetricians and gynecologists and boys to surgeons, and hopefully a pediatric surgeon if one is around. Pediatricians are seldom trained in providing treatment for children who have experienced sexual violence because they need not just treatment for their physical injury, but a sensitive and understanding approach, which is sadly lacking. The doctors especially in the government hospitals cannot be blamed, though, because they also work under tremendous pressure and often in difficult conditions.

  1. So does Tulir work with professionals on sensitising them?

We do. The results of a pretest that we conduct before starting a workshop can be very enlightening. We realise that even professionals harbour several misconceptions about child sexual violence. Many think only girls experience sexual violence. In fact, the father of a boy who had been sodomised told me, “I am glad I have a son and not a daughter!” They worry more about the consequences of sexual violence, like pregnancy, as that will bring dishonour to the family (spoil the future of the girl). With a boy, that possibility does not exist and so many families do not care.

But what about the boy’s mind, what goes on in there? Sometimes I think if the risk of pregnancy were not there, many would not even bother about such assaults!

  1. So do you see the same stigma attached to children too, like adults?

No, not so much. But there is a reluctance to report cases. Even the police and and allied health professionals discourage the families of the victim from filing cases. They think it will affect their future prospects of marriage.

  1. The media seems to be more active these days in reporting the cases. Do you think that helps?

It is superficial. They do not understand the complexities. Hang a rapist! Most of the times the rapist is a family member. Which child will want him or her hung? Media presents a very skewed picture, does not inform or educate the public, but creates paranoia. They are also the reason why many cases do not get reported, as people fear the news being splashed. As professionals who need to inform and educate the society, they need to become more sensitised and ethical when reporting such incidents.

  1. How do you compare the Indian scenario with other nations?

There are at least 25 specialisations in addressing sexual violence in developed countries! India has a long way to go. In Tulir we do  all 25 rolled into one because we have no specialised systems to fall back on.

  1. How about Tamil Nadu?

I would say our state is far ahead of others in awareness as well as redressal systems. When I go for meetings at the central level, they are discussing issues which our systems have addressed 10 years ago. We are looking to build on these and strengthen the system for better quality of healthcare and support for the children.

*****

Vidya Reddy is the co-founder of Tulir – Centre for the Prevention and Healing of Child Sexual Abuse. Tulir works to support and participate in local, national, and international efforts to promote and protect the rights of the child. Their work involves raising awareness about CSA, improving policy and practice to prevent and respond to CSA, providing direct intervention services as well as undertaking research, documentation and dissemination of information in the area.

Meera Srikant is a writer and a dancer. Violence of any sort disturbs her deeply, and by associating with Prajnya’s 16-day campaign, she hopes to contribute meaningfully for the cause in whatever little way she can.  

Why India Should Criminalise Marital Rape

by Aparna Gupta

The marital rape exemption can be traced to statements by Sir Mathew Hale, Chief Justice in England, during the 1600s. He wrote, “The husband cannot be guilty of a rape committed by himself upon his lawful wife, for by their mutual matrimonial consent and contract, the wife hath given herself in kind unto the husband, whom she cannot retract.” Hence for centuries, the rape laws around the world gave absolute immunity to the husbands, with respect to their wives.

However, the societal perception about marriage has now changed and wives cannot be regarded as mere property of the husbands. Internationally, at least 52 countries have explicitly outlawed marital rape in their criminal codes by April 2011. In India, the judiciary has time and again lamented about the lack of provisions to protect the wives from the acts of sexual perversity by their husbands. The Justice Verma Committee, the UN Committee on Elimination of Discrimination against Women and numerous women rights activists have recommended for the criminalisation of marital rape in the Indian statute. Then why does India still allow this grave discrimination to exist in its laws?

During the passage of the Criminal Laws Amendment Act in 2013, the Indian Parliament widely debated on criminalizing marital rape and finally chose an opposite stance. The law makers who opposed the move argued that it has the potential of destroying the institution of marriage. Such archaic notions are completely flawed as marriages thrive on mutual respect and trust and not through submitting to an abusive husband. It is the act of rape by one’s own husband that destroys the marriage and not the prosecution of the perpetrator.

There have also been concerns regarding difficulty of proof. This has lead to two contradictory issues. The opponents argue that it would be nearly impossible prosecute marital rape, because unlike an unmarried victim, the evidence of penetration is not considered sufficient evidence. Secondly, there is the danger of husbands being wrongly committed of a serious offence. However, these difficulties already exist in the cases where the victim is in an intimate relationship with the accused. The difficulty in prosecution cannot be considered as an excuse for not bringing the required reform in legislation. For instance, the prosecution might also be difficult in cases of murder, but that does not mean that murder shall not be considered as a crime.

The second issue, regarding protecting the innocent husbands from false accusation can be taken care of through implementation of certain measures. The Section 228 A of the Indian Penal Code could be amended to prevent the public disclosure of the husband and not just the victim. This is also important to protect the identity of the victim herself, as revealing the identity of the husband might lead to disclosure of her identity. The law could also compel the wife to give evidence in order to prevent the misuse of the act. Moreover, while such concerns are genuine, the existing power dynamics in the society reflect that investigation regarding allegation of rape is a notoriously difficult process for the complainant. In a country with abysmally low rates of conviction in rape cases, it is hard to believe that criminalisation of marital rape would lead to victimisation of the husbands.

Finally, the purpose of the legislation is to create deterrence against the acts of marital rape and to send a strong social message that marriage cannot be equated to consent. It is to provide legal support to the wives who have been battered, beaten and raped in the name of marriage. It is to tell the husbands that marriage does not give them the license to rape their wives. Despite difficulties in prosecution, if the law is at least able to bring this change in mindsets, then it would be a victory for the law. Therefore, it is time that the Indian parliamentarians look beyond their doubts and criminalise marital rape.

 

Aparna Gupta is currently a fellow with PRS Legislative Research’s Legislative Assistants to Members of Parliament programme. An engineer by training and student of policy by day, Aparna aspires to work in the domain of Human Rights and Gender Violence.

Marital Rape: Not a Myth

by Aparna Gupta

Every 6 hours, a young married woman is burnt or beaten to death, or driven to suicide from emotional abuse by her husband. According to the UN Population fund, two-third of the married women in India, aged between 15 and 49 years, have been beaten, raped or forced to provide sex by their husbands. These are not just mere statistics, but each represents a silent sufferer brutalised and caught in the glorified institution of marriage in India. There have been reported cases where women have been forced to have intercourse till their late pregnancies and have been brutally assaulted by their husbands just after delivery of a child. There have also been cases where a husband has transmitted sexually transmitted diseases to the wife leading to vaginal infection through forced sexual intercourse. Despite such horrifying realities the Indian marriage and rape laws continue to remain misogynist and treat wives as the property of husbands. Marital rape is not only legal in our country but it is somehow a taboo to even talk about it.

Section 375 of the Indian Penal Code says that sexual intercourse by a man with his wife who is not less than 15 years old is not considered as rape. The IPC goes further and Section 376B provides for a lesser punishment for the perpetrator for committing a sexual offence if the victim is his wife, living separately, under a decree or otherwise. These provisions under the IPC are not only inhumane and misogynist but also absurd and inconsistent with the other laws in India. Section 375 clearly gives the legal sanction to a man to rape his minor wife, while the age of consent under other laws is 18 years. There exists a grave anomaly as the Indian statute criminalises consensual sex between teenagers but turns a blind eye to the atrocities that are committed against women in the name of marriage every day.

The countrywide protests after the 16 December rape case lead to the amendment of the IPC through the Criminal Laws (Amendments) Act which brought in many progressive changes. However, the Indian parliamentarians abstained from omitting these highly sexist and patriarchal exceptions from the law, despite contrary recommendations by the Justice Verma Committee. The Verma Committee explicitly stated that marital relationship between the perpetrator and the victim should not be considered as a valid defence against the crimes of rape and sexual assault. Therefore it is essential that the Indian law makers and the society at large believe that a rapist remains a rapist regardless of his relationship with the victim.

It was heartening to see that in the budget session this year, both the houses of the parliament spent considerable amount of time in discussing the issues related to gender violence and atrocities against women. However, amongst more than 750 members in both the houses, only one raised the issue of marital rape and the inconsistencies under the IPC. While the growing number of brutal crimes against women has pricked the conscience of the parliamentarians and the people of India, we seem to have passively accepted the crimes committed to them within the confines of their home by their husbands as something normal. This needs to change- the patriarchal mindsets that consider wife to be duty bound to provide sex to her husband; the traditional understanding of a wife’s role as a submissive, docile homemaker. And the taboos that exist around the discussions regarding sexual relationship between a husband and a wife.

Therefore, there is a need to create more awareness regarding the heinous acts of sexual perversity that many wives suffer under the hands of the husbands. No society or culture can exist without change forever. Sometimes the laws of the land undergo transformation in the light of the social change and at other times they become the agents of social change. This is one of the latter times when the country needs a judicial awakening through uprooting the patriarchal sections of the IPC that propagate the archaic notions of marriage and consent.

 

Aparna Gupta is currently a fellow with PRS Legislative Research’s Legislative Assistants to Members of Parliament programme. An engineer by training and student of policy by day, Aparna aspires to work in the domain of Human Rights and Gender Violence.

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