A quick examination of what rape is:
Rape is anal, oral or vaginal sex without consent. Therefore non-consensual anal, oral or vaginal penetration by a person’s spouse is marital or spousal rape.
Discussions around Marital Rape are guarded, sensitive and often unconcluded in the minds of many. Indeed in some societies some are of the position that it is culturally impossible to accuse a man of raping his wife. The popular belief is that spouses-especially the wife belongs to her husband and he can do as he pleases when he pleases and how he pleases so much so that it is unthinkable to suggest that a husband can rape his wife.
I however beg to differ by emphasizing the fact that the most crucial element of rape is the absence of consent. The relationship between the perpetrator and the victim does not take precedence over this ultimate factor of consent. Does it not therefore follow that lack of consent in marriage is rape? Rape remains rape as long as lack of consent is an element and Marital Rape is a despicable reality that affects a fair share of women whether or not it is spoken about and acknowledged.
Examining Martial Rape in the Nigerian context, we must understand the integral role power plays. Powerlessness for women and power for men is portrayed in Marital Rape because power gives the perpetrator the privilege of control of the victim’s body, absolute control to take, regardless of the victim’s willingness. It is used to punish, exert control over the victim and prove masculinity. This control is given, sustained and strengthened by patriarchy. Given that the society is an enabler of the rape culture through power and the dominance of men in the private and public spheres, it follows that a marital rapist believes that he owns his wife, a property that can be used anytime he pleases however he pleases; he believes also that sex is owed him by his wife. The prevalence of child marriage clearly depicts this unequal power relations and the way marital rape is enabled by the society. This sense of entitlement by marital rapists renders consent null and may be an indication that such men through socialization can also commit stranger rape. If so, the society can indeed be more dangerous for women than we thought.
The effect of Marital Rape on the victim also has societal consequences, a quick analysis. Marital Rape, whose most profound characteristic is reoccurrence is extremely physically, emotionally and psychologically damaging to the victim. Unlike stranger perpetrated rape, the victim does not often have the opportunity to remove herself from that environment. She therefore continues to suffer the same cruel treatment and reside in that atmosphere of terror and humiliation. Also, Marital Rape will rarely occur exclusively from other forms of abuse; physical, emotional and verbal abuse usually accompanies marital rape.
Exposure of children to any form of abuse directly or indirectly is detrimental to their mental and emotional health. Children who have suffered abuse or have witnessed it have a higher chance of becoming abusers or constant victims themselves.
Child Brides who are very vulnerable to rape in marriage can suffer physical health issues like VVF (Visico Vagina Fistula) or psychological and emotional trauma that might lead to suicide or the murder of their abusers. Due to limited help available to such victims, some of them resort to murder to defend and save themselves.
Marital Rape therefore impacts the society in no small measure by producing potential abusers and psychologically distraught persons whose capacity to effectively contribute to the society is significantly reduced because of the trauma of continuous abuse.
What help is therefore available to women in this situation who do not deny that they are victims of rape in marriage and are willing to speak up about their ordeal?
The Nigerian legal system is weak against the crime of rape; most cases are unreported because the burden of proof can be very difficult to bear even in societies with sophisticated means of proving assault. Enacting a law criminalizing Marital Rape will be the first task as it is not a crime under the Nigerian legal system although the VAPP (Violence Against Persons Prohibition Bill) can be invoked for its criminalization.
No law criminalizes marital rape, even if such law did exist the private and public divide will significantly affect its effective engagement. This divide hinders justice being served to perpetrators of Marital Rape because it contributes to law enforcement classifying Marital Rape as outside of its jurisdiction as it occurs in the private sphere.
Non-legal response mechanisms start from reorientation of the society on rape and marital rape issues and indeed promoting zero tolerance for any form of violence in including Marital Rape. Knowledge can also be a tool to put a stop to victim blaming, shaming and stigmatization, which greatly hinders victims from reporting crimes of rape. Advocacy on the wider impact of Martial Rape will sensitize people about rendering support to victims known to them.
Facilities such as shelters can serve as a safe abode, access to individual or group emotional support and that can consequently lead more advocacy initiatives and explore constructive avenues to rid the society of this menace.
About the Author:
Oluwatoyin Ogungbayi is an International Human Rights Lawyer passionate about gender equality and women empowerment. She is the founder of Gender Consult, an NGO dedicated to creating a more gender equal society.