Within days prior to India’s latest election results that heralded a new government rising to power, an Indian court made a ruling that reinforced gender stereotypes. The court ruled that marital rape is not a crime. The ruling says that if a man and a woman are married, yet separated and living apart and a man sexually assaults the woman, he is not committing a crime. Furthermore, if a woman says no to intercourse with her husband, and her husband forces himself on her, no crime has been committed. A specific case was brought by an unidentified woman who said that a marriage had been performed while she had been drugged. She said that after the ceremony, during which she had been intoxicated, her new husband sexually assaulted her against her will and then fled.

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The court’s ruling stated that “sexual intercourse between the two, even if forcible, is not rape and no culpability can be fastened upon the accused.” The women of India cannot allow this to happen. This ruling puts them in the untenable position of fearing for their lives on a constant basis. Rural or urban, their safety is under threat.

Misogynistic views and beliefs of entitlement have existed in our societies for far too long.
Take the heinous occurrence in the beachside town of Santa Barbara, California, where a male gunman extracted revenge on women because he was consistently “rejected” by them. He got himself a gun and began shooting at women.

The way to change this way of thinking will require not only political and government action with stricter gun laws and penalties for such crimes, but also a coordinated effort from parents and non-governmental organizations to instill awareness in the tender minds of young males about respect for all.

For far too long India’s laws and officials have not done enough to promote and protect women’s rights. Patriarchal notions of male entitlement are repeatedly reinforced through lawmaker’s attitudes and judgments, as evidenced by the aforementioned ruling.
While there are many progressive laws that seek to empower women and protect their rights, weak implementation of these laws mean that they’re little more than words on a piece of paper. That, coupled with this latest ruling, tells Indian women that they do not possess the same rights that men have.

This ruling is an affront to women’s rights. It arrests any discourse on equality and  legitimizes the right of a man over a woman’s body when married. The ruling tells women—or girls over the age of 15—who are married or who will soon enter into marriage, that once they are legally married, they lose the right to decide if, when, and how often they will have sex with their husbands.

Ironically, according to the New York Times, the ruling in the case was issued under a new fast-track court, created after the gang rape of a woman on a Delhi bus less than two years ago, to help address problems associated with violence against women.

The aftermath of that incident included several changes made within the legal system, as recommended by the Justice Verma Report, but the recommendation to criminalize marital rape was rejected. While this ruling affects any female over the age of 15 who is married, it reminds us that many of the women this ruling affects are still girls.

According to UNICEF, as of 2013, nearly 48 percent of Indian women are married by age 18, many of whom are forced into an early marriage by their family to a spouse they did not themselves choose. It has been noted in various studies that girls who are married early experience higher rates of gender-based violence experience, are at greater risk to die during child birth, and have reported higher rates of depression.

As the newly elected government sets its political priorities, it is of utmost importance that India’s new Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, seeks to ensure that India’s women are safe and that new laws grounded in the protection of women from all forms of violence must indubitably become the norm.

Throughout the hotly contested election, Modi has made strong efforts to draw the support of women voters. He must make women’s empowerment a critical aspect of his political agenda.

During the election campaign, on his widely watched television show, Chai Pe Charcha, Modi opened his discussion on women by highlighting their political power. He insisted that a women’s vote bank in India would supersede all voting blocs in the country, including those formed on the basis of caste, religion, and region. He strongly emphasized that women are missing in the elections and advocated for their greater political participation. Modi also referred to women as nation-makers and nation-builders. He stated that while women were home-makers that contributed to the nation, they needed to become nation-builders by contributing to the economic development of the country. One way to do that is to provide equal education and opportunity to women: enrich a woman and you can enrich a nation. Hurt women, deny women equitable rights and a nation’s death sentence will soon commence.

Placing strong, capable, highly intelligent women in positions of cabinet power can do wonders in realizing Modi’s goals. Thus far, he is off to a good start by creating a gender inclusive cabinet consisting of 25 percent of women, which is 11% more than the previous government. This sends a resounding message that it will take cooperative efforts from both genders to help establish true change that is sorely needed for a country that is the world’s largest democracy.

This is a chance to “push the reset button” and to ensure that gains in women’s rights, not reductions, are par for the course under the new government.

Krishan Jeyarajasingham is  a former medical student applying for post-graduate training in the United States and currently doing research in Nuclear Medicine at a center affiliated with Johns Hopkins.

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