MUMBAI – Chitra Awasthi has counseled thousands of Indian women for decades. Many of them are rape victims. But there is one woman whose story has stayed with her over the years.

That was about ten years ago, says Awasthi, whose RIT Foundation works to promote gender and social equality in India.

The woman was a domestic worker. Her husband was an alcoholic.

"Her husband didn't work. He first asked her for money to buy liquor," recalls Awasthi. "Then if she couldn't deliver it, he would rape her. That was the sequence, every day."

The woman didn't tell anyone for years.

“It wasn't just the stigma and social pressure. In reality, she did not know that she had the right to say no, that she had rights over her own body”, laments Awasthi.

Despite her advanced degree in social work and decades of experience in advocacy and counseling, Awasthi was frustrated. She could help the wife file a domestic violence case against her husband. But she was unable to file a rape complaint. Marital rape is not illegal in India.

Since then, Awasthi has been trying to change that. She is now one of several petitioners who have brought a case before the Delhi High Court to criminalize marital rape in India.

"It is because of this woman, whose name I can't even remember, that I filed this petition," says Awasthi. "I think she left her husband and went back to her parents' village, but I am no longer in contact. There are so many like her."

Why is there a loophole in marital rape?
Marital rape is a sensitive issue that is difficult to measure, but especially so in India, where perhaps most sexual violence occurs within families and goes unreported. According to the Government of India's most recent National Family Health Survey, approximately 30% of Indian women aged 18-49 reported experiencing spousal violence. When it comes to sexual violence, the average Indian woman is 17 times more likely to experience sexual violence from her husband than anyone else, according to the survey of 724,115 women.

The fight against the criminalization of marital rape dates back decades, but gained momentum in 2012 when a brutal gang rape on a New Delhi bus shocked the world. The victim who died from her injuries became known as "Nirbhaya", the fearless one, because Indian law did not allow her name to be publicly reported as a victim of sexual violence.

Her case prompted a reform of India's rape laws: a broader definition of what constitutes rape and longer prison sentences for those convicted. Police departments across India have also added Nirbhaya brigades of female police officers who patrol the dark streets at night.

"This is a great thing! But what happens is that it also reinforces the idea that sexual violence takes place outside the home," says Nayreen Daruwalla, director of the program for the prevention of violence against women and children in SNEHA, a non-profit group dedicated to promoting health and safety in Mumbai. slums “While the concept of rape within the home is still considered private. There is no recognition. There is no protocol."

Despite this review of India's rape laws after the 2012 Nirbhaya case, a loophole remained: marital rape is still not illegal.

Section 375 of the Indian Penal Code, which prohibits rape, also contains an exception which reads: "Sexual intercourse or sexual acts by a man with his own wife, when the wife is not less than fifteen years of age, does not constitute violation".

The High Court petitioners call this patriarchal.

"After marriage, the husband has the right to the wife's body and this concept that a woman can refuse to have sex within marriage is not widely accepted," said Mariam Dhawale, general secretary of the All Democratic Women's Association. India (AIDWA). -Profit group that also filed a lawsuit in court. “In fact, it was not even accepted by the government. That is why the exception lasts to this day.”

For many equality advocates, this fight to close this loophole and explicitly make marital rape a crime is long overdue. But some conservatives see it as radical, even destructive of traditional Indian values.