The Silent Survivors of “Legitimate” Rape


The Silent Survivors of “Legitimate” Rape

Illustration: Rutuja Patil/Arré

She came to the hospital with that most ordinary of maladies, a fever. The young woman, accompanied by her mother-in-law, queued up in the women and children’s block of KB Bhabha Hospital, one of Mumbai’s busiest public hospitals.

When her turn came, she rattled off the symptoms, her eyes glued to the mosaic floor, her voice trembling. She was running a high temperature and had a constant dull ache in her abdomen.

Sneha, the nurse, immediately recognised the symptoms. Usually this would not take more than two minutes of the doctor’s time – a few pills and the instruction to come back a week later. But this was not one of those cases. Sneha knew, after years of working in this ward, that the woman was a victim of sexual violence. And the presence of her unsmiling mother-in-law meant that this was not just rape. This was marital rape.

The symptoms were there for all to see. The young woman was reluctant when asked to remove her salwar for an examination and flinched as Sneha touched her arm. Her mother-in-law was standing just outside the enclosure created out of curtains.

“Daro mat,” Sneha said, in a low voice, as she laid the woman down. “Mujhe pata hai tumhare saath galat ho raha hai.” A quick examination revealed inflamed private parts and an infection.

“Go to Room 95 for a blood test and then go to Room 101. Go in alone,” Sneha told the woman. She drew the mother-in-law aside and told her that her son will have to abstain from sex, as the painful infection was contagious. She knew that this lie would bring the abused woman some respite. The hospital would provide her the medicine, but it will be in Room 101 that she would be saved.


A door marked 101 sits at the end of the crowded women and children’s ward of the hospital. Its interiors are markedly different from the adjoining rooms. There are no beds or medical instruments to be seen; instead the shelves are lined with files. These contain the life histories of thousands of women who have entered the room, bearing stories and wounds of domestic violence.

Women who have been raped with unmentionable objects, women who have lost unborn children to ruthless beatings, women who have been tied up and defecated on, women who have been burnt by steam irons because they forgot to add salt to the food, women who have got poison forced down their throats because they were not deemed attractive enough by their husbands. Sneha has met them and all of them have been directed to Room 101.

Room 101 is a crisis centre for women, masquerading as a medical facility. The masquerade is important. The National Family Health Survey-III (NFHS-III), published in 2005, found that while 37.2 per cent of women who had ever been married had faced spousal abuse, only two per cent sought help from the police.

Every day, Sneha sees the damage done by the patriarchal notion, which deems the wife a property of her husband, to be used as he pleases.

According to the same survey, more than half of these women ended up in hospital at some point owing to the violence they experienced, but they were often accompanied by the abuser or his representative. A group of social and healthcare workers realised that the best way to stop the cycle of violence was to offer free legal and psychological support when the women were the most vulnerable, at the hospital itself, in a room away from the person accompanying them.

To test their theory, the non-profit organisation, Centre for Enquiry into Health and Allied Themes (CEHAT), set up Room 101, which they called Dilaasa, a decade ago. They started with a 10-day workshop for the doctors and nurses. They were taught how to ask questions sensitively, how to offer psychological first aid, and how to spot telltale signs of violence.

Dilaasa has since become a department run by the hospital, which receives about 300 new cases of domestic violence every year. A large chunk of it is marital rape.

Women like the young rape victim spotted by Sneha, do not even have the option of registering a police complaint because marital rape is still not a crime in this country.

It is an injustice, which makes Sneha’s blood boil. Every day, she sees the damage done by the patriarchal notion, which deems the wife a property of her husband, to be used as he pleases. And a good wife is supposed to grin and bear it.

This reasoning received the tacit endorsement of no less than the Minister of Women and Child Development, Maneka Gandhi, when she informed the upper house of Parliament that “the concept of marital rape, as understood internationally, cannot be suitably applied in the Indian context owing to various factors like level of education/illiteracy, poverty, myriad social customs, and values, religious beliefs, mindset of the society to treat the marriage as a sacrament”.

“She should see what men do to their wives,” Sneha tells me. Her stories are both heartbreaking and stomach-churning.

She tells me about the young woman, educated and employed, who was routinely coerced into painful sexual acts. If her refusal was forceful, her husband would strip her naked, drag her out of the house and lock her out. When she begged her way back in, the violence would start all over again.

She came to the hospital with a broken arm and told the doctor that she had hurt herself after she slipped and fell. But the marks on her body and her body language told another story. Every time she heard her husband’s voice, she jumped.

It turned out that Sneha was right. Tests showed the most common signifiers of abuse, unnatural vaginal discharge, injured rectum, and a prolapsed uterus. She was sent to Room 101 and over a couple of hours, the counsellors cajoled the truth out of her.

This woman, barely a few months into her marriage, was covered in marks. Cigarette burns, gashes, and bite marks, were all concentrated on her breasts, thighs, and pubic region. Her husband never left a mark on her arms or legs, areas she could show someone without hurting her modesty. The caseworkers explained her legal rights to her. If nothing else, she could file a non-cognisable police complaint, which would not put their partners behind bars, but would create a useful paper trail if the situation escalated. But the young woman walked away from them. The prospect of recounting the abuse in front of a system run by men was too much for her.

The law may have abandoned victims like her, but women like Sneha continue to fight the good fight. In the crowded corridors of this hospital, she keeps watch for those who have not found a voice and every day she gently cajoles their stories out of them.