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On Marital Rape, Regressive Notions Undermine Autonomy of Women

Context

On 11 May, two judges of the Delhi High Court handed down separate judgments in RIT Foundation v Union of India.

Relevance

GS-I: Role of Women and Women’s Organization, Population and Associated Issues, Poverty and Developmental issues, Urbanization, their problems and their remedies.

Dimensions of the Article

  • Background
  • The Two Judgements
  • Way Forward

Background

  • Section 375 of the IPC defines “rape” as when a man has sex with a woman without her consent.
  • Exception to Section 375 of IPC:  An exception to Section 375 provides that it is not rape for a husband to have sex with his wife, regardless of consent.

The Two Judgements

Violation of rights

  • In his judgment, Justice Rajiv Shakdher concluded that the marital rape exception violated the rights to life, equality, non-discrimination, and freedom of speech and expression under the Constitution.
  • There is no reasonable basis to distinguish between married and unmarried women.
  • Marriage is a relationship of equals, and women do not forfeit their agency and sexual autonomy upon marriage.

Issues with Constitutional validity of exception

  • Justice C Hari Shankar took a different view, concluding that the marital rape exception is constitutionally valid.
  • First, the judge held that it is the wrong starting point to assume that a husband who has sex with his wife without her consent “commits rape”.
  • Exclusion from definition argument: The judge noted that the effect of the exception to Section 375 of the IPC is that any sex between a husband and wife, whether or not consensual, is excluded from the definition of rape.
  • That analysis does not bear scrutiny.
  • It makes little difference whether the starting point is that non-consensual sex within marriage should be characterised as rape or, for example, sexual assault.
  • The critical question is whether it is unconstitutional to exclude non-consensual sex from the definition of rape.
  • Preservation of marital institution argument: The judge held that the marital rape exception was “aimed at preservation of the marital institution, on which the entire bedrock of society rests”.
  • The difficulty with that proposition is obvious — is it the policy of the law that marriage is to be preserved at all costs?
  • If so, does that withstand constitutional scrutiny?
  • Impact argument: the judge rejected the challenge to the martial rape exception based on the right to equality on the spurious assumption that the impact on a woman who is raped by her husband cannot “be equated with the impact of a woman who is raped by a stranger”.
  •  No evidence is cited in support of those claims.
  • They also defy logic. Being raped by someone in whom you have reposed trust is likely to have an indelible emotional impact.
  • Reluctance to file complaint: The judge concluded that, as a practical matter, a “majority of Indian women” would be reluctant to file a complaint of rape against their husbands in any event.
  • Even if that were true, it is no reason to disempower, by the operation of the law, women who do have the resolve to make a rape complaint against their husbands from doing so.
  • Creation of new offence: Justice Shankar held that it is not within the court’s power to create a new offence, and striking down the marital rape exception would have that effect.
  • There is no question of creating a new offence — the court would simply be striking down an exception carved out of an existing offence.
  • The only principled basis for the judge’s objection is that it may be unfair to punish someone for rape for conduct that was excluded from the definition of rape when it was undertaken.
  • But that is not a reason to avoid striking down the marital rape exception.
  • The easy solution is for the court to declare that its judgment will apply only to conduct after the date of the judgment.

Way Forward

Whether the marital rape exception violates fundamental rights under the Constitution is a question that falls within the Court’s core competency. There is only one reasonable answer to that question.

Source – The Indian Express

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October 2022
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