New Delhi: One in every 25 women in India reported being subjected to sexual violence by her husband often or sometimes, according to data from the National Family Health Survey-5 (NFHS-5), conducted in 2019-21. Further, the issue appears to be more prevalent in some states than others, with Karnataka, Bihar, West Bengal and Assam topping the list.
In the survey, ‘ever married’ women between the ages of 18 and 49 (who were currently or previously married) were asked about the different types of violence they faced from their spouse.
Based on data from 26 states (data from Tamil Nadu, Arunachal Pradesh, Odisha, and union territories other than Jammu & Kashmir were unavailable on the NFHS-5 portal), nearly 4 per cent of women reported facing sexual violence “often” or “sometimes” in their marriage.
However, the percentage was considerably higher in Karnataka (9.7 per cent), Bihar (7.1 per cent), West Bengal (6.8 per cent), and Assam (6.1 per cent).
Compared to data from NFHS-4, which was conducted in 2015-16, the percentage of women who reported sexual violence in their marriage increased to 9.7 per cent from 6.3 per cent in Karnataka. In contrast, for Bihar, the percentage declined to 7.1 per cent from 12.2 per cent.
Indian law does not recognise marital rape as a crime, although the matter has often been subjected to legal and social debate. The Delhi High Court is currently hearing a batch of petitions challenging the exception to marital rape under sexual assault laws. Amid these widely reported hearings, there is also an ongoing social media discussion on the matter. The hashtag #MarriageStrike has been trending, promoted by men who believe women should not be given more legal power in marriage.
In this context, the NFHS-5 survey highlights that a significant number of women experience sexual violence in their marriage, but have no specific legal recourse offered to them.
The case of Karnataka
In Karnataka, 9.7 per cent of women — almost one in every 10 — reported that they faced sexual violence from their husbands. Of these, 2.7 per cent said it happened “often” and 7 per cent said it happened “sometimes”.
Out of the respondents who said they were subjected to sexual violence, 7.9 per cent reported being physically forced to have sexual intercourse with their spouse after they had said no. About 6 per cent said they were forced, through threats and other forms of coercion, to perform specific sexual acts that they did not want to do. Another 3 per cent said their husbands used physical violence to make them perform sexual acts they did not want to.
Karnataka recorded the biggest increase in the percentage of women reporting sexual violence in their marriage when compared with the previous round of the survey held in 2015-16. In that period, 6.3 per cent women had said they faced sexual violence from their husband often or sometimes.
This increase of 3.4 per cent seems alarming, but it may be at least partly attributable to higher reporting rates in Karnataka rather than a spike in violence.
“Education, empowerment, and having a woman-friendly environment increases the ability of women to speak against and retaliate against all forms of violence. This may be the reason why women in Karnataka are more vocal about the wrongs perpetrated on them with regard to sexual abuse and violence,” Geeta Luthra, advocate at the Supreme Court of India, said.
Human rights activist Brinda Adiga, who works with the Bengaluru-based NGO Global Concerns India, however, said that education and professional employment are no guarantees of protection from patriarchal expectations and mindsets.
Trends in other states
Apart from Karnataka, Goa and Maharashtra also show a considerable increase in the percentage of women reporting sexual violence in marriage.
Goa, where only 0.1 per cent of women reported marital sexual violence in 2015-16, now has 4 per cent respondents saying they were subjected to sexual violence by their husbands. Similarly, in Maharashtra the percentage of women reporting sexual violence in their marriage has risen to 4.8 per cent in 2019-20 from 1.7 per cent in 2015-16.
The data from Bihar, where the percentage of women facing sexual violence in their marriage was the second highest this time at 7.1 percent, has shown a downward trend. In 2015-16, 12.2 per cent of women had said they experienced sexual violence often or sometimes in their marriage.
The data from NFHS-4 and NFHS-5 also shows downward trends in Manipur (down to 3.6 per cent from 9.7 per cent ), Tripura (down to 2.6 per cent from 8.6 per cent) and Haryana (down to 2.7 per cent from 8 per cent).
Indian law defines rape and consent in detail, but contains an exception for these conditions in the case of married couples, unless the woman is under 18 years of age. Women who face marital sexual violence, therefore, have to look for recourse under other provisions of the law.
According to Luthra, wives can “seek justice” under the Domestic Violence Act 2005, which in which sexual violence is also included. However, the punishment provided for sexual violence is much lower than under the rape law.
“The provisions under the Domestic Violence Act come mostly under civil law, which means the violator (the husband) will at most be liable to pay compensation, or the woman could be granted protection etc. The perpetrator will not be put in jail, which is the norm for criminal laws, including rape,” Luthra said.
(Edited by Asavari Singh)