The Disparity between Reality and the Law: Marital Rape
Tuesday, February 12th, 2013
It was the first mass of the new year, and the priest had decided to base the sermon on family values in accordance with the life of the
holy family. He preached about various habits of couples that ruined marriages, such as excessive drinking, gambling, adultery, abuse, etc. However, what really caught my attention was a question he addressed to the married couples about whether in their opinion a man could rape his wife. There was silence at first, but there came a resounding ‘yes’ from the congregation. According to these people, the answer was ‘yes’. It was indeed possible for a man to rape his wife. However, as a law student, I knew better. According to our laws, the answer should definitely not have been yes! Actually, it should have been a resounding ’no’. Even though most of the people who answered were women, and some men might only have said yes because the question was asked by a reverend father and it just seemed like the right thing to say, it still intrigued me. If the people were so willing to admit that marital rape was wrong and should be stopped, then why wasn’t the law?
According to section 1 of the Sexual Offenses Act (Laws of the Federation of Nigeria), a man commits rape when he has unlawful sexual intercourse with a woman. “Unlawful” in this instance means intercourse outside the bonds of marriage. This means that a man cannot be prosecuted for raping a woman he is married to, because by virtue of their relationship, she has consented to give herself up to him in this manner. This is what the law states, but the people know otherwise.
Another thing that intrigued me was the awkward silence that came before the answer, which I attributed to two possible reasons. The first was that they actually had to answer the question for themselves: for the women, it was, can my husband rape me? and for the men it was, can I actually rape my wife? The second reason I attributed to something I had read, that one out of every 3 married women either has been or knows or has heard of someone that has indeed been raped by her husband. If this was indeed true, it would mean that there were actually some victims of marital rape present in the crowd, some of whom would shout yes out loud because they have experienced it first hand or say noting at all, depending on whether their spouse was present.
The first group signified to me the first issue that could be faced by people in this situation, which was actually identifying what was happening to them as rape. Can a man truly, in the sense of the word, ‘rape’ his wife? The idea that rape can occur in a relationship that lawfully requires consummation and sexual relations is unseemly. Acts that would constitute marital rape are usually perceived by people as one partner ‘not being in the mood’ for sex and the other (usually the husband) insisting. The second group signified the dogma and embarrassment arising from such a situation and the fact that rape is often just a small clog in a large machine i.e., it is just a small part of a highly abusive relationship. Obviously, a woman being raped by her husband wouldn’t dare admit to it in public, least of all in his presence. It also signified that, as statistics have shown, it is a wide spread issue. Marital rape is a very popular, yet largely unreported, form of patterned domestic abuse, because most victims are too scared to come forward, and really, what would be the point since ‘a man can’t rape his wife’. In cases where the woman is brave enough to ask for help, it should be the role of the law to offer protection. This has been recognised in all 50 states in the US and in many other parts of the world where marital rape has been criminalised. We are still waiting on the law to change in Nigeria, while victims suffer in silence. Here, sex, whether voluntary or not, is regarded as a husband’s prerogative.
Now, perhaps I have overanalysed the whole situation, but once again, I think to myself, if in those brief seconds, people knew the right answer was yes., then, in a democratic country such as Nigeria, which claims that the laws are for the people and by the people, shouldn’t the laws agree with the people?
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