Of marital rape and conjugal rights

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When Monica got married and subsequently had an unforgettable white wedding, it was in line with the script she had authored, that of a blissful marriage in which love overlooked all wrongs. But one night, hardly six months later, at a time when being intimate was the last thing on her mind as she was not feeling well, she had to pander to her husband’s sexual desires.
For a long time – perhaps up to this day – she has struggled to define that act.
On the one hand, she could not define it as love, while on the other, it was not possible that her husband could “rape” her.
Monica’s situation is just a clip in a series of complex marital situations that many couples go through.
A recent Constitutional Parliamentary Committee (Copac) outreach meeting in Gwanda reportedly saw some villagers, particularly the elderly, arguing that marital rape should not be included in the new constitution as it was the source of marriage break-ups.
They argued that in the African culture, there was no such thing as marital rape, as the couples were obliged to meet each other’s sexual needs.
“There is nothing like rape in a marriage. When a woman leaves her parents’ home to go and live with her husband, she should satisfy his needs. There is nothing like rape in a marriage,” 70-year-old Sizalakho Elizabeth Nyathi said. Because marriage often has love as its bedrock, many women – including those who are victims of rape within marriage – have great difficulty in defining it as such.
For a long time, there has been an ominous silence on the issue of marital rape, although the Sexual Offences Act (2001), criminalises marital rape. The traditional African idea suggests that it is impossible for a man to rape his wife and that in making marriage vows, parties in the marriage abdicated authority over their bodies and sexuality to their partner.
A wife being raped will often question her right to refuse intercourse with her husband. Even if she realises that the forced act legally constitutes rape, a litany of reasons often prevents women from regarding it as such.
Despite some monumental differences between traditional African culture and Biblical teachings, the two belief systems appear to seamlessly coalesce on the subject of sexuality within marriage.
In 1 Corinthians 7: 3–5, the Bible says: “The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband.
“The wife’s body does not belong to her alone but also to her husband. In the same way, the husband’s body does not belong to him alone but also to his wife. Do not deprive each other except by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.”
Marriage itself, according to the Bible, was established by God.
Prince Mahemu, a 29-year-old father of one from Mufakose, said the matter was so complex there was need for caution in dealing with it, and it was important for partners to make compromises, and to ensure that women were protected.
He said: “Some marriages might be experiencing problems so the women need to be protected. I however feel that marriage is all about compromise, so the women need to understand that despite challenges, men do have conjugal rights and they might use that as a weapon against their man.”
A number of men argue that women often used the trick of withholding conjugal rights as a protest against whatever perceived sins their husbands would be committing, and having such a provision in the Constitution would not be fair on men.
Fiona (24) of Hatfield, who has been married for two years, said she just did not understand how there could be anything called marital rape when sex was naturally part of the marriage menu.
Another woman, Tanatswa Masoka (28), said the fact that people where in marriage did not give them a right to abuse their partner, but there was need for both parties to be understanding.
“Some men demand it on the basis that it’s their conjugal right, but if the woman is sick or tired, it would be selfish on the part of the man,” she said.
She added that some men justified extra-marital affairs on the flimsy ground that their wives were denying them their conjugal rights.
Another woman, who declined to be identified, said while it was possible for a man to rape his wife, bringing in the law could be problematic.
“If you get your husband arrested, and he goes to court, where will that leave your marriage? I think once you get your husband arrested, you’re basically saying that’s the end of that marriage,” she said, adding that it could also be difficult to gather the evidence of the rape.
Legal practitioner, Retlaw Matorwa, however argued that rape, under whatever circumstances, was “an infringement of one’s freedom of choice”.
He however questioned the rationality of marital rape “in a situation where the central tenet of marriage is sex”.
Social commentators argue that the patriarchal nature of society often made it difficult to enforce legal provisions against marital rape.
They also note that as most women were economically disempowered and dependent on their husbands for survival, that would also discourage them from reporting cases of marital rape.