Little over a month ago Women and Child Development Minister Maneka Gandhi had invited the wrath of the women’s rights activists when she told the Rajya Sabha that a slew of factors including illiteracy and social customs made it impossible for India to criminalise marital rape. The anger had not been misplaced, neither the sense of disappointment because Gandhi’s personal position on the matter is known to be completely different from that of the government.
In a sense, her recent announcement that now there is a move to criminalise rape by husbands has been a homecoming of sorts for the minister but whether she manages to pull it off in a party as conservative on matters of gender rights as the BJP could be a function of many things, including at a later stage how many other political parties it manages to convince; provided it is convinced itself. There is no dearth of expert opinion supporting her on the matter, the latest being the high-level committee on the status of women headed by Pam Rajput that has criticised the legislature for its inability to address the issue in cases other than where the wife is aged less than 15 years.
The Justice J S verma Committee set up in the aftermath of the Delhi gangrape of 2012 not only compiled legal instances from around the world supporting the criminalisation of marital rape but also recommended in unequivocal terms: “(i) The exception for marital rape be removed. (ii) The law ought to specify that (a)A marital or other relationship between the perpetrator or victim is not a valid defence against the crimes of rape or sexual violation; (b) The relationship between the accused and the complainant is not relevant to the inquiry into whether the complainant consented to the sexual activity; (c) The fact that the accused and victim are married or in another intimate relationship may not be regarded as a mitigating factor justifying lower sentences for rape.”
The UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (“CEDAW Committee”) in February 2007 recommended that India should “widen the definition of rape in its Penal Code to reflect the realities of sexual abuse experienced by women and to remove the exception of marital rape from the definition of rape…..”
These reports have been in existence for several years now and successive governments have chosen the path of least resistance by simply ignoring them. Women are a long way from emerging as a votebank in India and something far less controversial than the women’s Reservation Bill has been a casualty despite the backing of some of the most politically powerful women in the country including Congress president Sonia Gandhi.
Whether Maneka manages to make herself heard above the collective conspiracy of silence will also depend to at least some extent on her persuasive powers and political heft.