For victims, this omission leaves the door open for the nightmare of intimate violence to continue.
A 24-year-old Savar housewife explained what the absence of legal recourse has done to her life: “I am an object for him to fulfil his physical desires. He touches me whenever he wants to and throws me out when he has done what he wants to do.
“Whenever he opens his mouth to speak, he quarrels with me. He is always suspicious of me even though we have a child together.”
She does not want to report the violence, and there is at any rate little opportunity for legal recourse.
Section 375 of the Penal Code of 1860 states that “Sexual intercourse by a man with his own wife, the wife not being under thirteen years of age, is not rape.”
This position is retained in Section 9 of the Women and Children Repression Prevention Act, 2000, although the new act was meant to upgrade the law and bring it into line with current legal norms.
It did not do so.
Article 2(a) of the UN Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women explicitly recognises marital rape as a form of violence against women.
Article 29(a) of the Declaration on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women also explicitly includes marital rape as part of its definition of violence against women.
The exclusion of marital rape from the ambit of rape law reflects “deep rooted attitudes about the role of a woman and the wifely duties she owes her husband,” said women's rights activist Shireen Huq.
Enduring in silence
Bangladeshi activists said a lack of legal and economic empowerment caused housewives to tolerate rape.
Asked why she did not divorce her abusive husband, the Savar housewife said neither she nor her parents could afford the consequences of a divorce.
A fear of stigma and financial constraints limits options for these women. A lack of legal cover compels them to resign themselves to their difficult lives.
A Magura woman who is also the victim of marital rape said she had made compromises with her husband and thinks herself lucky that he at least allows her to continue studying, albeit with conditions.
“If I had a job, I would have left him. But I understand what he wants and I know what I have to do. I can continue with him ... he is, at least, trying to make me independent,” she said.
Rights activists said although women and girls are reluctant to press charges against a rapist when the culprit is their spouse, such incidents occur throughout the country.
Since there is no law, no case has been filed for such types of violence, Shireen Huq explained.
In Bangladesh, marital rape was finally supposed to be recognised as an offence in 2010, when the Domestic Violence Act was passed. But the law somehow managed to bypass the issue.
A woman's rights activist who was working to enact the Women and Children Repression Prevention Act, 2000 (Amendment 2003), said an attempt to include the issue was rejected because some members of the law drafting committee thought their wives might “misuse” it.
Bangladesh National Women Lawyers' Association (BNWLA) Executive Director Salma Ali told the Dhaka Tribune that social stigma and concerns about “family reputation” discouraged women from speaking up and seeking help.
Family members are often unreceptive to the notion of marital rape, and the economic dependence of many victims also causes them to feel that they must endure in silence, Salma Ali explained.
Without the introduction of a law under which complaints can be filed, intimate partner violence would continue, she added.
Patriarchal mentalities often lead to a clash of egos when women enter the workplace, and husbands sometimes vent their frustration at being overstepped through marital rape, Shireen said. Without legal protection, marital rape can be used to intimidate them.
She emphasised that economic empowerment was at least as important as legal protection.
As United Nations Women begins its 15-day campaign to raise awareness about violence against women today, activist Shireen Huq's closing point bears recalling: “By definition, rape is sex without consent.”