The right to protection from marital rape
The Singapore Penal Code accords legal immunity to husbands who rape their wives. The assumption is that by getting married, a woman loses her right to say ‘no’ to any sexual demand imposed by her husband, including violent rape. But sexual penetration without consent is rape.
By Wong Pei Chi, Paroma Ray, Vivienne Wee and Nadzirah Samsudin
On 10th December 1948, the United Nations (UN) adopted and proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), setting out a broad range of fundamental human rights and freedoms, to which all men and women are entitled without any distinction, with all member states obliged to respect the human rights of their citizens. Since then, the date 10 December is commemorated as Human Rights Day across the world.
The rights of women and girls are an inalienable, integral and indivisible part of universal human rights. The full and equal enjoyment of these rights is a priority for the State and is essential to the advancement of women. However, women often lack the necessary legal protection for the realisation of their rights.
Marital rape is one situation where women’s rights are not recognised. The Singapore Penal Code accords legal immunity to husbands who rape their wives, unless the couple are living apart or unless a Personal Protection Order has been started or obtained prior to the incident. This implies that wives can obtain legal protection from marital rape only if they have been granted a Personal Protection Order for previous abuse.
The assumption is that by getting married, a woman loses her right to say ‘no’ to any sexual demand imposed by her husband, including violent rape. But sexual penetration without consent is rape. Rape is experienced by the victim as an attack, not sexual pleasure. It is an act of violence used by the attacker to assert control over the victim. The trauma and stigma of marital rape can hinder victims from participating fully in public life. These are all true regardless of whether the perpetrator is a spouse.
Marital rape, once ignored in most countries, is now internationally recognised as a human rights issue. Article 16 of the UDHR states that men and women have the right to marry and to found a family. They are entitled to equal rights to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution. The family is also entitled to protection by the State.
It is a contravention of human rights to presume the sexual subordination of wives to husbands. Our laws must send a powerful signal of zero tolerance of any form of violence within marriage, including marital rape.
This will promote the view that, like other things in marriage, sex should be mutually agreed each time, whether or not there is a general expectation of it. For example, the law does not condone a husband beating his wife for not washing the dishes if she does not agree to do so, even though he expects this of her. So why is it different with sex? Why is a husband entitled to inflict violence on his wife if she does not agree to have sex with him, even though he expects her to do this?
Another assumption that has led to the legal anomaly is the belief that because men are supposed to have stronger sex drives than women, wives are supposed to be the compliant receptacles of their husbands’ drives, with no right to agree or disagree. Singapore’s laws expect men to control their sexual urges by not molesting or raping women who are not married to them. Does this imply that marriage constitutes a licence for men to rape their wives because there is no need for them to control their sexual urges?
Without the right to say ‘no’, a married woman has no sexual autonomy. The lack of legal protection for her if she is raped by her husband implies that she is her husband’s sexual captive, subject to his demands. This may also violate her right to protect herself from sexually transmitted infections or unwanted pregnancies.
The immunity given to marital rapists reduces the legal protection of married women from rape. This breaches the principle of equal protection before the law and may thus be unconstitutional.
When people deny that marital rape is a problem, they deprive survivors of such violence of a safe space to speak up. When laws deny that marital rape exists, it solidifies the silence and stigma. A 2009 International Violence against Women survey in Singapore found that 71.7% of women abused by their partners would not make a police report. This shows that the silence of such victims does not mean there is no problem.
If state and society genuinely view families as important inSingapore, it is imperative that marriage be constituted as a safe space for both spouses to enjoy equal rights as marriage partners, based on mutual consent, negotiation and respect.
On this Human Rights Day, we call on the State to uphold the right of married women to be protected from marital rape as a fundamental human right.
Wong Pei Chi is a founding member of the No To Rape campaign and an AWARE Board member, Paroma Ray is an AWARE volunteer, Dr Vivienne Wee is the Director of Research & Advocacy at AWARE, and Nadzirah Samsudin is a Research & Advocacy Executive at AWARE. This piece was first published in Today on 10 Dec 2012. Read the published version here.