Indian rape verdict says rape includes marital rape and extends right to abortion to 24 weeks


Rape was defined as rape by the Supreme Court of India in a landmark decision on Thursday.

The country’s Supreme Court has also stated that all women, regardless of their marital status, have the right to an abortion up to 24 weeks, the Press Trust of India (PTI) news agency reported.

The statements were made as part of an interpretation of the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act of 1971, which originally applied only to married women or in cases of threat to the mother’s life or rape up to 20 weeks.

Thursday’s order stopped short of criminalizing forced sex by a husband, but said it would allow abortion because such cases would be considered sexual assault.

“Only a legal fiction removes marital rape from the scope of rape,” the order said.

“We would be remiss not to accept that intimate partner violence is a reality and can take the form of rape. The misconception that strangers are exclusively or almost exclusively responsible for sexual and gender-based violence is very unfortunate. Sexual and gender-based violence (in all its forms) in the context of the family has long been part of the experiences of many women,” the order added.

In 2021, changes were made to the Medical Interruption and Pregnancy Act to remove the distinction between married and unmarried and in some cases increase the time limit to 24 weeks. In this way, the revised act made it possible to apply a greater interpretation of the law.

Extending the law on access to safe and legal abortions for “all women” to 24 weeks on Thursday, the Supreme Court ruled that the distinction between married and unmarried people was not “constitutionally sustainable”.

Such a distinction “would perpetuate the stereotype that married women only engage in sexual activities,” the court added.

The landmark decision comes after widespread protests against the high incidence of sexual assaults, usually against women and girls, across India in recent years.

In 2012, the gang-rape and murder of medical student Nirbhaya – the nickname given to the victim, meaning “fearless” – in Delhi prompted millions of women to call for tougher sentences for the culprits.

Outrage led to stronger rape laws, including fast-tracking rape cases through the court system and a revised definition of rape to include oral and anal.

However, activists say such laws have done little to stem the tide of sexual violence in India, which was ranked as the world’s most dangerous country to be a woman in a 2018 survey by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

More than 28,000 cases of alleged rape against women were reported in 2020 (roughly one every 18 minutes) according to India’s National Crime Records Bureau. Because many rapes go unreported out of fear, experts believe the true figure could be much higher.

Earlier in September, a 12-year-old boy was left in a “critical condition” after he was allegedly gang-raped and beaten by three men – minors known to the victims – in New Delhi.

In April, a 13-year-old girl was allegedly raped by four men who approached the police to report an initial gang-rape.