Chief of UN Development Programme (UNDP) Helen Clark recently urged India to criminalise marital rape. The former prime minister of New Zealand made the request soon after Indian Minister for Child and Women Development Maneka Gandhi triggered a controversy by saying that marital rape isn’t rape after all. Gandhi also suggested that marital rape was a foreign concept and could not be applicable to India.

The minister explained India’s stand on the sensitive issue, saying that the Narendra Modi government has strong reservations’ about the Western world’s understanding of marital rape. According to the minister, the Modi administration believes that marital rape cannot be “suitably applied in the Indian context” because of various factors, such as poverty, religious beliefs, level of education or illiteracy, myriad social customs and values, and mindset of the society.

Women’s rights activists in the South Asian country condemned the minister’s argument, saying it is unfortunate that the concept of marital rape is not being addressed in a country, like India, where a huge section of women are not free to marry a partner of their choice.

Meanwhile, Clark said that India should not violate the UNDP’s development agenda by not criminalising marital rape. She also said that the only parameter for determining rape should be “consent”. According to Clark, India should understand the importance of consent of the women to sexual activities. In case consent is not there, it should be considered as rape, she stressed while addressing a three-day Regional Conference on ‘Advancing Asia: Investing for the Future’ in the Indian capital earlier this week.

Clark also said that each country should examine its laws under the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals because it would be crucial to verify whether they “take women forward or take them back”. As India officially adopted the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, it could not ignore its duties and responsibilities, Clark told the audience.

The UNDP chief strongly criticised the Indian minister for referring marital rape as a foreign concept, saying: “An assault on women at home is never something within the family. It is a crime. It has to be recognised and dealt with.”

Globally, almost half of the top 50 countries, ranked in terms of total Gross Domestic Product (GDP), are yet to criminalise marital rape. In its ‘Progress of the World’s Women (2011-12)’ report, the UN Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women clearly mentioned that only 26 of the 50 top countries had laws against marital rape. In other 24 countries, marital rape is not an offence.

So far, the US, France, Brazil, Canada, Australia, Mexico, Turkey, Switzerland, Sweden, Argentina, Belgium, Austria, Thailand, Venezuela, Colombia, South Africa, Denmark, Malaysia, Israel, Hong Kong, the Philippines, Finland, Chile, Ireland, Greece and Portugal have criminalised marital rape. However, rape within marriage is not illegal in India, China, Japan, Germany, the UK, Italy, Russia, South Korea, Spain, Indonesia, the Netherlands, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, Poland, Norway, Iran, the UAE, Singapore, Egypt, Pakistan, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Algeria and Qatar.

Koushik Das, based in the Indian capital of New Delhi, is a senior news editor with more than 15 years of experience. He also runs a blog - Boundless Ocean of Politics. E-Mail: [email protected]