Speaking Out

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Wed Apr 14, 2010

HIV and Marital Rights

By Sohaila Abdulali

Big news in The Hindustan Times this week:  “Nine years after India signed a United Nations convention to protect the rights of HIV/AIDS patients, a new draft law proposes to define non-consensual sex by an infected husband with his wife as sexual assault.”

This would be a fantastic news story but for one fact: India already has a law that defines non-consensual sex with his wife by any husband, whether infected or not, as sexual assault.

In 2006, India passed the Domestic Violence Act, which declared marital rape a crime. When, oh when, will reporters do their homework? It’s very depressing to think that neither they nor their editors had any idea that raping one’s wife has been a crime for four years already. Perhaps it’s such a weird concept that they knew but blanked it out.

Most countries in the world do not have laws on their books that make it a crime for husbands to rape their wives. This is mind-boggling to begin with, and in the age of HIV, it gets into issues of life and death, not just bodily integrity. 

The Domestic Violence Act in India was a landmark piece of legislation, and journalists, along with everyone else, should know about it as the first step to enforcing it. It’s not easy, in a country where the ideal wife is still a pativrata, someone who remains staunchly loyal to her husband, no matter what. In fact, the more loyal you are in the face of neglect and cruelty, the more points you get in the afterlife. Anyone can be a pativrata for a respectful, caring man, but millions of us were taught that it takes a real woman to remain loyal to one who beats you, doesn’t let you have your own life, or is just a jerk in general. Perhaps this is why it’s so difficult to take on board the idea that women can actually say no to sex. 

The new HIV legislation is a step in the right direction, and it builds on the Domestic Violence Act in its stated acknowledgement of marital rape. Let’s hope that it helps both men and women learn that things have changed, and Indian women are no longer legally obligated to be pativratas.