Organisations working on issues of reproductive rights and health of women, especially poor women, know that this is a rampant phenomenon that devastates the mental and physical health of women. There is enough micro level data with such organisations but since they are few and far between and there has not been any effort to collate this data at the macro level, the Government can easily get away by saying that there is not enough data. However, the National Family Health Survey 4 which has just been concluded has a specific question no 1107 in the woman's questionnaire that asks the woman respondent whether she has been forced by her partner to have sex or engage in other sexual acts under threat of force, even if she did not want to and the answer options to this question are - often, sometimes and not in the last twelve months. So far only the preliminary broad results of this survey have been published and the detailed question wise results are still being analysed and are yet to be published. But once the complete results are in, there will be enough rigorous data on marital rape on which to go by and the Government can't slime its way out by citing data unavailability.
Here I will detail the heart rending experience of a woman residing in a slum in Indore who has suffered marital rape continuously and how difficult it is to remedy this problem. I will refer to the woman as Padma to mask her identity and her story is being made public with her permission. She was among 50 odd women who participated in a reproductive health programme that was conducted by the Mahila Jagat Lihaaz Samiti (MAJLIS) in their apartment block. Preliminary surveys were conducted to determine the status of reproductive health and rights of the women and then they were clinically examined by a gynaecologist along with medical tests in a health camp pictured below.
Subsequently medicines were given free and a follow up camp was held three weeks later to evaluate the results of the intervention. Subhadra has conducted such reproductive health interventions in both rural and urban areas before and the current programme has been launched by her in Indore with the aim of developing a replicable model and building up a large database on the status of reproductive health and rights.
Padma is 30 years old and works as a cook. Her husband is a motorcycle mechanic and they have two daughters and a son aged between 10 and 15 years. They live in a two room apartment in a block that has been built under the Rajeev Gandhi Ashray Yojana for rehabilitating people living in slums from which they have been displaced to make way for up-scale urban development. Clinical examination revealed that Padma was underweight for her height and suffered from general weakness and backache. She had severe cervical erosion from several infections of the vaginal tract and had white discharge. She was anaemic with haemoglobin level of 9.7 grams per decilitre. She was prescribed calcium, iron and protein powder to increase her strength and was given vaginal pessaries to insert to clear up the white discharge. She was also given a combination of drugs to treat her vaginal infections. Since these were very widespread and had been there for quite some time, the doctor asked her to ask her husband also to take this combination of drugs. She was also given anti-biotics.
This is where the problem began. Her husband refused to take the combination drugs to cure the vaginal infections saying that he was not ill so why should he take medication. We sat with the man and explained to him that if he did not take the drug then his genitals would continue to be infected and once again infect his wife after she was cured. He just nodded his head and went away but he refused to take the medicine. Talking to Padma we learnt that her husband came home drunk on most days and demanded sex despite her being so weak and if she protested then he would beat her up and allege that she was sleeping with some other man. A classic case of marital rape if ever there was one. Consequently there was not much improvement in her condition despite the medication.
During the follow up camp the doctor said that Padma's condition had not improved and she still had severe cervical erosion which would eventually result in her having to remove her uterus unless the cervix was cauterised and she desisted from having sex for some time.
Once again we spoke to the husband but did not get any response. Then, Subhadra got angry and she told Padma that she would have to take a hard decision. Either she would waste away if she continued in the present fashion or she would have to fight her husband for her rights. Subhadra said that she would take Padma to a hospital for cauterisation of her cervix, only if she stood up to her husband and stopped sleeping with him as otherwise the whole procedure would become useless. After much hesitation Padma agreed and her teenaged daughter also asked her to take courage. She went ahead with the cauterisation and then refused to sleep with her husband for a whole month telling him that a lot of money had been spent on her and she was not going to let that go down the drain because of his lust. When he tried to beat her she said, on the strength of the information given to her by Subhadra, that she would report him to the police for violating the provisions of the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act. She has since asserted herself more and now has sex only when she feels like it. As a result she has recovered her health.
Under the circumstances in which patriarchally oppressed women like Padma live, it is indeed a little insensitive on the part of Maneka Gandhi to say that the onus is on the woman to report marital rape and since she is not doing so and there is not enough data, the Government can't do anything. Padma is not alone as during the survey most women reported marital rape saying that they have to sleep with their husbands almost every day regardless of their own inclinations or face beatings. One woman, Rekha, said she had never enjoyed sex because her husband had been forcing herself on her ever since she got married as a young teenager even when she was heavily pregnant.
The average cost of treatment of a woman in the programme was about Rs 800 and in Padma's case it was about Rs 2000. The Government can provide these services at even lower costs as it is a much larger procurer. If these poor women go to a private practitioner on their own then the cost will be much more and given the patriarchal social structure and the poverty it is impossible for them to bear this expense. Not only does the Government not provide these services, the women were all clinically checked by a gynaecologist for the first time as some of them had only availed obstetric services earlier, but sadly it side steps the serious problem of gender based sexual violence arising from patriarchy that most married women have to suffer from. It is time both society and the government stopped running away from the horrendous reality of marital rape.