KUALA LUMPUR: When Neelambika’s husband slapped her, she decided to end their marriage, but this only made him angrier.
He began to repeatedly rape her —which is legal in Malaysia — while she tried to sleep on the sofa.
Neelambika, 60, a part-time teacher with one child, could not afford to move out as divorce proceedings dragged on for more than a year.
“My bed was on the couch in the living room and that’s where the marital rape happened,” Neelambika, who declined to give her full name to protect her identity, told Reuters.
“It was about wielding his power and control over me. I endured it but something died inside of me.”
In more than 50 countries, including the United States, Nepal, Britain and South Africa, it is a crime for a husband to rape his wife, but this is not the case in most of Asia, where campaigners are pushing for legal reform.
Like other forms of domestic violence, marital rape can lead to trauma, depression, loss of income due to injuries, loss of work, poor school performance by children and even murder.
Although statistics on marital rape are hard to come by, one-third of women who have been in a relationship say they have experienced physical or sexual violence at the hands of their intimate partner, according to the World Health Organisation.
A spokesman for de facto law minister Liew Vui Keong did not respond to requests for comment.
Last year, a deputy minister in the Prime Minister’s Department, Mohamed Hanipa Maidin, told Parliament that the government had no plans to make marital rape a crime as it was hard to prove in court, according to local media reports.
Neelambika said she didn’t even consider going to the police as they had no powers to stop the assaults, and she was keen that the small community where her family lived didn’t find out.
She was too ashamed to confide in anyone. When she did stay overnight with friends or family, her husband turned up at her work or parents’ house, demanding that she return home.
“He knew I just wanted a divorce, so he was going to make use of me during that period,” she said.
“He just felt he had that right — that he was still my husband and he could do anything he wanted.”
Work to be done
While many Asia-Pacific countries have introduced domestic violence and harassment laws over the last decade, only 15 out of 39 states in the region have criminalised marital rape, according to the gender equality agency UN Women.
Many countries do not collect data on marital rape — not just because it is not a crime, but also because social pressures mean it is rarely reported or discussed.
Victims of sexual violence are often blamed and stigmatised, said Ingrid FitzGerald, a regional gender expert at the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), which promotes sexual health.
East Timor has Asia’s highest rate of reported sexual violence by an intimate partner, at 40%, while Myanmar is among the lowest, at 4%, UNFPA said, based on countries where survey data is available.
Women are often torn between wanting the violence to end by reporting it and not wanting the husband and main breadwinner to be jailed, FitzGerald said.
Their decision depends on how easy and socially acceptable it is to get a divorce and on women’s financial independence.
“Rape is rape — whether it occurs to a woman of a particular age, in marriage or a relationship. It’s still rape,” FitzGerald said.
Even where marital rape laws do exist, police often do not take women’s complaints seriously and blame victims, while authorities fail to provide adequate protection, said Melissa Alvarado, a programme manager at UN Women.
“There is definitely work to be done to create that more sensitised and empathic response for women so they can more boldly tell their stories,” she said.
Despite the taboos, positive changes are happening.
In 2017, India’s top court struck down a decades-old clause in the country’s rape laws permitting a man to have sex with his wife if she is aged between 15 and 18 — ruling that it was rape, and therefore a criminal offence.
Ahead of India’s elections next month, women’s rights groups have been urging political parties to include criminalising marital rape in their manifestos.
Last month, Singapore’s Parliament proposed a bill — backed by the government — to make marital rape a crime.
“The bigger problem is whether they will be able to get spouses to come forward,” said Pratap Kishan, a director at Kishan Law Chambers LLC in Singapore.
“Women are reluctant to report such matters because they feel it is something that is within the family and they should maintain that.”
To boost support for criminalisation, there needs to be a shift in mindset on marital rape, challenging traditional gender roles and victim blaming myths, using government-backed public awareness campaigns, gender experts said.
“It feeds into this bigger concept of men’s access to women’s bodies … whether it’s date rape, marital rape or sexual harassment, that women’s bodies exist for male pleasure,” said Jennifer Wells-Qu of women’s rights group Equality Now.
To help rape victims come forward, countries can also introduce women-only community courts, like in India, said Wells-Qu, the charity’s Beijing-based Asia associate.
Meanwhile, activists are trying to educate lawmakers about the impacts of marital rape, such as miscarriages, poor newborn health, HIV infection and increased suicide rates.
“Removing the exception to marital rape protects wives and sends a strong message that all rape is heinous,” said Sumitra Visvanathan, head of the Women’s Aid Organisation in Malaysia.
When Neelambika’s divorce eventually came through, her husband moved out of their family home.
In an attempt to overcome her trauma and change public perception on marital rape, Neelambika published a book this month on her experiences and is campaigning for reform.
“Many rape victims don’t have any recourse,” she said. “If they’re still married, they fear retaliation from their husbands. When is it going to stop?”