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August 10, 2003 

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When husbands rape

Wallapa T

After a 10-year struggle, women groups in Thailand have finally put marital rape on the national agenda. Considered to be widely prevalent but rarely accepted or reported, marital rape till recently was not an issue even for women. Thai law does not recognise marital rape as a crime. Thus most women are forced to remain in the marriage despite sexual abuse.

But today, women like Mhe See hope in the anti-domestic violence campaigns led by women activists. Mhe is preparing a case against her husband, not only for violence but also domestic rape. She was often raped by her husband but as existing Thai laws do not see non-consensual sex between husband and wife as
rape, she continued in the marriage.

One day, after a brutal beating, Mhe ran out of her house and was hit by a car. The police rushed her to hospital where the nurse on duty realised that most of her bruises and injuries were not from the accident. She took Mhe to an NGO who filed a case of assault against Mhe's husband. Though Mhe will not be able to slap charges of rape against her husband right now, she hopes that an amendment in the legislation against rape and sexual abuse will enable her to do so.

Mhe's case is considered a small beginning in the long struggle against sexual abuse in marriage. In the early 1990s, the National Women's Commission, the Criminal Law Institute and other concerned groups proposed an amendment to the law to include wives, transsexuals, boys and men in existing legislation on rape and sexual abuse.

It took seven years for the proposal to reach the Council of State, the government's legal arm. The slow progress was mainly due to the biases of a male-dominated bureaucracy. In 2000, the Council finally rejected the proposal saying that a man could be prosecuted for raping his wife only if he forced sex on her when infected with a contagious disease or when the couple has been separated by a court order for a period of no less than three years.

This year, women groups have again girded themselves to fight for a change in the law. This time they have also done some rethinking. "We must address rape, sexual molestation, sex with minors, sexual harassment, exhibitionism and pornography in the same legal offence package," suggests Dr Mataluck Sethamethakul of Thammasat University's Faculty of Law.

Ratchadaporn Kaewsanit of Women and the Constitution Network says that their campaign has so far achieved little for it challenges the perceived 'male prerogative' to control women's bodies. Men justify the use of force as punishment for women who don't perform their duties.

While women activists continue to pressurise the government to enact a new law or amend the old one, many also feel that they need to create more awareness in society, especially among women. "Without public pressure, our legal efforts will once again go nowhere," says Kaewsanit.

One reason for the failure of women groups so far has been their inability to educate women about their rights and prepare them for the long legal and emotional battle a case of domestic violence entails. Pichaikul says, "Society is not really ready for laws against sexual violence. We need to sensitise women first so that they start asking themselves what kind of families and marital relations they really want."

- NewsNetwork/WFS

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