Women across Pakistan are celebrating a marital rape conviction — here’s why

Women across Pakistan are celebrating a marital rape conviction — here’s why

In a landmark judgment, a Karachi sessions court sentenced a man to three years imprisonment on charges of sodomising his wife.
24 Jan, 2024

A local sessions court sentenced on January 15 a man to three years imprisonment on charges of sodomising his wife in what her lawyer described as Sindh’s first conviction of marital rape, The News reported. Women across Pakistan celebrated the landmark decision, which may not have convicted the accused under Section 375 of the Pakistan Penal Court (PPC) — rape — but still sentenced a married man to jail for the abuse of his wife.

The accused was found guilty of forcing his wife to have unnatural sex with him, an act punishable under Section 377 of the PPC.

Lawyer Zahrah Sehr Vayani told Images that this was a “landmark judgment”. “We need to be bold enough to convict under Section 375 PPC and treat marital rape as a criminal offence. This judgment is a huge step in the right direction, leaving room for progress,” she explained.

Vayani hoped that “the same acts as a deterrent to marital rape and stresses upon the importance of consent”.

Some have argued that the crime was not related to marital rape because the conviction was under Section 377, pertaining to sodomy, which is outlawed in Pakistan.

Vanayni explained the matter to us: “The conviction is under Section 377 due to the nature of the forced act of sodomy. It is being treated as marital rape because a husband was forcefully committing sodomy on his wife and was convicted of doing so without consent. Usually, the police and mostly the courts do not interfere in cases where the couple are married unless it is a complaint of domestic violence”.

Netizens were also quick to educate those who believed the unnatural offences clause was unrelated to marital rape. An individual explicated that the “violence” perpetuated against the victim fell under the “classification of marital rape”.

The case highlighted the prevalent issue of marital rape wherein consent is wrongfully implied by virtue of marriage. To put it in its simplest terms, rape is rape — regardless of marital status. Anyone who infringes on the physical autonomy of another without informed consent is in the wrong — once again, in spite of marital status.

Advocate Bahzad Akbar of the Legal Aid Society who represented the complainant contended that “sodomy falls within the definition of rape and marital rape in this case after an amendment brought to Section 375 of the PPC in 2021”.

People remained firm in the belief that marital rape does in fact exist, and marriage is not automatic consent.

According to the AGHS Legal Aid Cell, which was co-founded by Asma Jahangir, the “seminal judgment rightly establishes intimate partner violence as a crime and reinforces women’s sexual autonomy within marriages in Pakistan”.

Women in Pakistan are often disregarded when they face intimate partner violence, primarily because of belief that it is the husband’s “right” to demand and receive sexual intimacy with or without the woman’s consent.

According to a paper published by the Lahore University of Management Sciences, before September 2018, there was not a single case of marital rape filed or prosecuted in Pakistan.

What makes matters worse is that the legal system and PPC only very recently made amendments to protect victims of rape — marital or otherwise. Prior to 2006, rape laws would hurt victims more than perpetrators.

Human rights lawyer Ali Shekhani wrote on the evolution of rape laws for Dawn: “In 1979, the Zina Ordinance was introduced during the military regime of Gen Ziaul Haq. Through this, harsh penalties were imposed for adultery and rape. While these amendments aimed to protect women, implementing the ordinance often punished the victim rather than the perpetrator. Victims were required to produce four male witnesses to prove their case, creating major hurdles for survivors seeking justice.

“Recognising the shortcomings of the existing legal framework, the government of Pakistan took steps to reform rape laws. In 2006, the Women’s Protection Act brought significant changes by replacing the Zina Ordinance. The amended PPC Section 375 redefined rape and expanded the definition to include male victims and cases of same-sex rape. It also included sexual assault as an offence, addressing a broader range of sexual offences.

“The Anti-Rape (Investigation and Trial) Act was introduced in 2021,” Shekhani explained. “It was a big milestone for rape victims, particularly when compared to the previous Act that governed such cases. This crucial legal reform brought about substantial amendments to the existing framework, with the primary objective of better safeguarding and supporting survivors of sexual assault.”

Rape and intimate partner violence affects women across the world. According to the United Nations, globally, an estimated 736 million women — almost one in three — have been subjected to physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence, non-partner sexual violence, or both at least once in their life (30 per cent of women aged 15 and older).

In Pakistan, NGO War on Rape (WAR) in their 2020-2021 report outlined that at least 11 rape cases were reported in Pakistan every day, with over 22,037 rape cases reported to the police across the country in the last six years. WAR noted that of the total cases, 4,060 are pending in the courts, of which, only 77 accused have been convicted which comprises 0.3 per cent of the total figure, and only 18 per cent of cases have reached the prosecution stage.

The NGO stated that only 41 per cent of rape cases are reported to the police due to social pressures and other procedural deterrents and gaps in the justice system. It added that cases of sexual violence are underreported in Pakistan with an extremely low, under 3 per cent, conviction rate.

To top it off, marital rape statistics for Pakistan are nearly impossible to find and accurately tabulate as it is highly underreported and often not considered a crime. as matters of sex within a marriage are often believed to be ‘private’. Marital rape often falls under the category of domestic violence and does not get a separate statistic.

But victims of marital rape are so much more than a statistic or a neat number to help us better comprehend the prevalence of a grave issue. They are human beings suffering at the hands of an individual they have to spend the rest of their lives with.

The judgment by the Karachi sessions court is a pivotal step, however, it is just a step. It is high time more concrete steps are taken to provide justice — legal and otherwise — to victims of marital rape, and it is high time to believe women when they talk of intimate partner violence instead of brushing it under the guise of men’s “rights”.