“Even one judge saying a husband violating his wife’s consent is rape was validating. There it was, in legal black and white, something I had struggled to say to myself for so many years,” the 44-year-old says over the phone. “My husband has sexually violated me for years. He does not beat me or deny me money. He is not a bad father. But every time I do something he doesn’t approve of, every time I stand up to him, he ‘shows me my place’ in our bedroom,” she alleges.
She has been married for 20 years and has two children. The husband has a high-paying job. They both have family money. “To many, including the Indian legal system, I have nothing to complain of.”
And yet, she claims, her marriage has been an “endless humiliation”, with no legal recourse. “He does not brutalise me or has “unnatural” sex. He just forces sex on me to break my spirit. I resist, but not to the point my children or neighbors can hear anything. During a heated argument, he looks me up and down. It’s like he is saying, ‘you know what awaits you’. At night, he is a violent stranger. Next morning, he acts like nothing is wrong.”
This repeated abuse has left her “questioning everything, everyone, all the time.”
“For years, I didn’t acknowledge that what my husband did was raped. I would feel dirty, humiliated. But I thought something was wrong with me that I minded my husband’s touch. Women in my family thought the concept of marital rape was ‘for the west’. It is lonely to be a woman with a complaint against a husband who does not beat you,” she adds.
The 44-year-old says her marriage has made it difficult to have other healthy relationships. “I am unable to connect with people. I look at other women and wonder if they are hiding secrets like mine, if they spend nights hiding in the bathroom. Often, it gets difficult to believe I deserve good things. I can’t look myself in the mirror for days.”
But she has found some help.
“About five years ago, I finally opened up to a relative in the US who works for sexual abuse survivors. She directed me to online chat rooms where women talk about their experiences. Attending those sessions was like solid ground returning beneath my feet.”
Has she ever considered walking out of the marriage?
“I have considered disappearing. That will probably be easier. If I try to divorce him, my family will not support me. And my husband will fight hard and dirty. What can I blame him of? There is no violence or cruelty as the law understands it. And I think of my 13-year-old daughter and 9-year-old son. Will they understand if I accuse their father of rape? Will they hate me? Will they hate him? How will the trial affect them?”
She says she often wonders what she will do if a marital rape is criminalised. “I probably still won’t be brave enough to file a complaint. But someone else might. For a woman trying to walk out of an abusive marriage, very often the law is her only ally. Every woman deserves that ally.”
Some distance from her is a 23-year-old, a refugee from Afghanistan, living in a government shelter in New Delhi after she walked out of her six-year-old marriage. She alleges her husband would beat her and their five-year-old son, had several extra-marital relationships, and would rape her.
“Ours was a love match. I married him when I was 17. But he just wanted me as a servant for his house. Barely weeks after the marriage, the violence began.”
She walked out after a few months. But he went to her parents’ house and “begged and pleaded” for her to return. Her father made it clear if she left her husband, she would not be welcome. “I told them about the beatings and the verbal abuse, not the rape. I practiced forming the words in my head, but could not say them out loud. It was too humiliating. I had loved this man, dreamt about his touch. Now his touch had become revolting,” she says.
Three years into their marriage, the man moved to India. “I followed him, thinking he may be better away from his mother and sisters. I still wanted the marriage to work, thinking I had nowhere else to go,” she says.
In India, the husband continued to hit her, with “wire cables, knives, whatever he could lay his hands on.” “Once, drunk, he pronounced talaq. But he still kept sexual relations with me. That is haraam. He degraded me in all ways,” she adds, breaking down several times.
Finally, she decided she would take no more.
“He would rape me in front of our son. He forced me to undergo abortions, saying he had had one kid only to show to the world he was not impotent. He kept sexual relations with other women. Who knew what STDs he had! And what would my son learn in such an atmosphere? So one morning, after he had gone to sleep exhausted after a night of beating both my son and me, I left. I knew Hindi, so I had managed to speak to people and find out about this shelter. My son and I have been here since, and I am happy.”
The shelter is a Sakhi One Stop Centre, a central government initiative where women in distress are provided legal and medical help, counseling, and a temporary place to stay. In the months she has been here, the 23-year-old has managed to get a refugee card without her husband’s name, and is hoping for an in absentia divorce, because the husband does not come to hearings.
“He came the first time, where he again begged me to return. But I have learned my lesson. I just want to be free of him so I can go to Canada or Europe and start a new life.”
However, she does worry about one thing. “He will probably marry again, brutalise another woman. That would not happen if I could get him jailed as a rapist.”
At the same center is a 38-year-old woman, here to check on the progress of her case. She alleges her husband and in-laws are trying to kick her out, and she has moved court for maintenance and for the right to stay in one of the houses they own.
“My father is dead. My mother or siblings can’t support my two sons. I was married off at 16. Now, even if I find a job, it won’t be enough to feed three people,” she says.
Her married life has been a long tale of mental and physical abuse, she says. “My husband would side with his family in every quarrel, then come have sex with me. That really breaks you, you feel you can do nothing to save yourself, nothing of yours is truly yours.”
About two years ago, her husband began to suggest prostitution. “He would tell me, ‘women earn Rs 500 per hour doing this, why can’t you make some money.’ My husband doesn’t earn much, but his family is comfortably off. I sometimes think he suggested that because he actually believes he owns my body, having treated it like property for so long.”
The 38-year-old says she approached the police several times, but was asked to “go home and adjust”. At the most, her in-laws would be called to the police station and “scolded”.
Then, her husband began to click compromising pictures of her. “He would not let me shut the door when I took a bath. He of course could take my pictures in bed. When I confronted him, he said he doesn’t send the pictures to anyone, can’t a husband click his wife?
Her husband now lives with his family in a bigger house. She found out about Sakhi when she had brought her younger son to the hospital. After counseling at Sakhi, she is fighting for the legal right to stay in the small house.
“I want to live there because I have no other roof over my head. But at times, someone bangs the door at night. I freeze in my bed. Only a woman who has been sexually assaulted within her home knows the terror, the uncertainty, the nauseating dread of day-to-day existence. There should be a special law to punish such men,” she adds.
According to the National Family Health Survey-5 report released this month, 32% married women (18-49 years) in India have experienced physical, sexual, or emotional spousal violence.
Neelam Chaudhary, in-charge of the Sakhi center at Malviya Nagar, says a specific law against marital rape could help many women. “But more than any new law, we need the existing laws to be implemented efficacious. The police and lawyers need to be sensitised to treat spousal violence with urgency. It is often a matter of life and death, and those impacted always include children,” Chaudhary says.
Pallavi Barnwal, a sexuality and intimacy coach, says she has come across many men who believe they have the right to sex even if their wives don’t want it. “I have had women come to me whose husbands violated their consent. But because of social pressure, economic dependence, the prospect of a difficult legal fight, and lack of confidence to live alone, they stay in those marriages. We need to teach people that sex is about sharing and intimacy between equals, not a man exercising his rights over a woman. That will bring about lasting change.”