Marital rape: When no means no

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She wanted a divorce and had moved back to her parents’ home. Weeks later, her husband dragged her to their former home, where he stripped, gagged and bound her, before forcing himself on her.

For that, he was initially fined $4,000 for wrongful confinement, criminal intimidation and voluntarily causing hurt. They were still man and wife so he could not have raped her – under the law.

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That was 1999. Almost two decades later, Singapore still allows for immunity for marital rape. But that looks set to change as the Government said it is “actively reviewing” the issue.

Minister for Social and Family Development Tan Chuan-Jin, who highlighted the review in Parliament on Tuesday, told The Sunday Times it is timely.

“I strongly believe that a married woman should not have any less protection against sexual violence than an unmarried woman,” he said. “While there are conjugal rights between a married couple, these rights exist within the bounds of reasonable behaviour. With this in mind, when a woman says ‘No’, it means ‘No’.”

Lawyers, activists and social workers welcomed the move, saying the law should have long been scrapped. “Married women are not chattel,” said Mr Sunil Sudheesan, acting president of the Association of Criminal Lawyers of Singapore.

  • SINGAPORE’S EVOLVING STANCE ON MARITAL RAPE


    Before 2007:
    It is not a crime for a man to rape his wife.

    2007: The law is changed to recognise marital rape under certain circumstances.

    2012: Law Minister K. Shanmugam says arguments for criminalising marital rape are worth looking at.

    2013: Then Second Minister for Home Affairs S. Iswaran notes one instance of false reporting since 2008.

    2016: Singapore tells UN Human Rights Council it is “actively working towards repealing marital rape immunity”.

    Now: Minister for Social and Family Development Tan Chuan-Jin revisits the issue.

Criminal lawyer Amolat Singh said: “Imagine this, a woman can run a company but when she goes home, she can’t even say no to her husband forcing himself on her. That is quite preposterous.”

Non-spousal rape, meanwhile, carries a maximum jail sentence of 20 years and the man is also liable to a fine or caning.

The man in the 1999 case was eventually jailed for 18 months when the case was appealed. Then-Chief Justice Yong Pung How called him an uncivilised savage and said the fine was “manifestly inadequate”.

Over the years, Singapore took small steps to redress the issue.

Before 2007, it did not recognise that a man could rape his wife. But that year, the law was amended to lift immunity under certain circumstances: if the couple were living apart under an interim divorce judgment or written separation pact; if divorce proceedings had begun; or if the wife has a personal protection order against her husband.

But this was not enough, said many. Said Singapore Management University law don Eugene Tan: “The amendments continued to harbour a misogynistic mindset. It was a case of two steps forward, one step backwards.”

Immunity should be abolished altogether, say the experts. But one concern – which some ministers surfaced in Parliament in 2007 – was that a woman could cry rape to get back at her husband.

Then-Senior Minister of State for Home Affairs Ho Peng Kee said: “We do know of cases where a wife can cry foul. We have got feedback from men whose marriages are also on the rocks, but who have sex and the wife may appear to consent.

But afterwards, she… can threaten that rape has happened. Should that be marital rape? That is the Damocles’ sword hanging over him.”

In a departure from this view, Minister Tan says: “Existing safeguards in the form of evidentiary requirements, prosecutorial discretion and judicial scrutiny are in place to prevent the miscarriage of justice for all types of rape, including marital rape.”

Another concern was that criminal proceedings of marital rape may be intrusive for families. But family lawyer Sim Bock Eng noted: “This same argument also applies to marital violence and has not stopped marital violence from being a crime.”

Singapore, along with Afghanistan, China, Indonesia, Iran and Saudi Arabia, still offers marital rape immunity. Those that had abolished it include all American states by 1993, Norway in 1971, Thailand in 2007 and South Korea in 2013.

There have not been many known cases of marital rape here. The Sexual Assault Care Centre started by the Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware) in 2014 saw 117 cases of rape and sexual assault by penetration in 2015 and 138 last year. Only six in each year were marital rape cases.

But social workers said the issue is vastly under-reported, as are rape cases. Victims are also unlikely to come forward since marital rape is not illegal, said Ms Jolene Tan, head of advocacy and research at Aware. Lawyer Ivan Cheong added: “There’s the added trauma of a wife having to share that a husband has forced himself on her.”

The greatest benefit of abolishing this immunity, said those interviewed, is in sending a signal to society that men should not force their wives to have sex without consent.

Ms Tan pointed to a 2014 Aware survey of 500 youth which found that while three-quarters thought it was important to seek consent for physical intimacy when dating, 40 per cent did not think so when married.

The hope is that mindsets will shift, with the latest signal from the Government. Said law don Dr Tan: “It would appear that the immunity for marital rape is on its last legs in Singapore.”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 09, 2017, with the headline ‘When no means no’.
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