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Why won’t India criminalize marital rape? Because marriage is sacrament, the government says

A protester lights candles during a vigil to mark the first anniversary of the Delhi gang rape, in New Delhi on Dec. 16, 2013. (Reuters/Adnan Abidi)

In recent years sexual violence has become a subject of fierce debate within India, with new legislation put in place in 2013 designed to protect women from harassment, assault and rape. Despite some progress made, critics say the government has failed to address a number of specific issues in Indian society related to sexual violence.

One such issue is marital rape – an act of non-consensual sex where the perpetrator's spouse is the victim. India's Criminal Law (Amendment) Act from 2013 specifically excluded this form of abuse, stating: "Sexual intercourse or sexual acts by a man with his own wife, the wife not being under fifteen years of age, is not rape." Instead, under the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act passed in 2005, marital rape victims are offered only civil remedies to their cases.

This exemption has been challenged by activists both inside and outside of India. So this week, India's government released a statement explaining why, in India, marital rape is not criminalized.

[India fails to silence a BBC film exposing the New Delhi bus gang rape]

"It is considered that the concept of marital rape, as understood internationally, cannot be suitably applied in the Indian context due to various factors e.g. level of education/illiteracy, poverty, myriad social customs and values, religious beliefs, mindset of the society to treat the marriage as a sacrament, etc," Haribhai Parathibhai Chaudhary, minister of state for home affairs, said in a written statement.

The statement also said there was no proposal within India's government, now led by Narendra Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party, to change the law.

Many found the response lacking. Kanimozhi Karunanidhi, the politician who posed the question to India's government, expressed disappointment with the answer and said the argument about marriage being a sacrament was unconvincing.

“I accept that the institution of marriage is an integral part of our social structure. Many people across many faiths hold it sacred. But it has not stopped us from bringing the anti-dowry law or domestic violence legislation,” Karunanidhi told the Hindu newspaper. “Today, we are more receptive to women’s rights and issues. This is not against our culture. It is about protecting our women from violence and abuse."

On Twitter, some users criticized and mocked Chaudhary's statement.

The Justice Verma committee, set up after a notorious gang rape in Delhi to recommend changes to India's legal system, had recommended marital rape be criminalized in 2013. However, it was rejected by the government, then held by the Congress Party. That year a group of lawmakers presented a report to parliament that opposed changing the law, arguing that if "marital rape is brought under the law, the entire family system will be under great stress."

Activists say that by not criminalizing marital rape, the Indian government is ignoring an enormous problem in sexual violence. Research from social scientist Aashish Gupta suggests that Indian women are far more likely to face sexual violence from their husband than from other men, but just one percent of marital rapes are reported.

Many countries around the world criminalized marital rape in the 20th century, with all 50 states in the United States considering the rape of a spouse a crime by the 1990s. However, there remain a number of countries that have not criminalized marital rape, including China and India, the world's two largest countries by population.

Read more:

Two years after infamous Delhi gang rape, India isn’t any safer

Battered women in China could finally get a measure of legal protection

How laws around the world do and do not protect women from violence