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Marital sexual violence is 'a terrifying experience'.

"It was a terrifying experience. When I tried to resist, he pinned my arms above my head. It was so painful and suffocating that I fainted, for I only remember getting up in the morning and finding stains of blood on the bed sheet. My husband was no longer in the room. I slowly got up and went to the toilet, feeling sick and depressed."

This is how 32-year-old Laxmi (not her real name) recalls her first sexual experience at age 13. Like many of the married women interviewed in a qualitative study conducted in 1996 in two villages of Uttar Pradesh, India, (1) Laxmi experienced marital sex as forced and frightening. The study, conducted by the India-based Centre for Operations Research and Training (CORT) among married women ages 15 to 44 years, found that young brides in Uttar Pradesh--where nearly half of all girls are married by the age of 15--often are unprepared for sex and feel helpless to prevent it. Many girls are simply told one or two days before they are married, "Do not refuse your husband, let him do whatever he does."

Women in the study who had been married for fewer than three years tended to resist sex less than did women who had been married for three or more years. In the first years of marriage, women reported, acquiescing to a husband's sexual demands was the only way they knew to foster a close marital relationship or obtain some power to negotiate family affairs.

When women resisted sex, it was often because they worried about an unintended pregnancy. Ironically, refusing sex often led to sexual coercion and the very outcome they feared: Most of the women in the study who reported sexual violence in their marriages had experienced one or two unintended pregnancies.

In the study, two-thirds of some 100 women reported marital sexual coercion. When women refused sex, most husbands angrily reminded them, "What else have I married you for?" or "What good are you if you cannot do this for me?" Some husbands threatened to have sexual relations with other women or demanded that their wives return to their parents.

These findings are similar to those from studies conducted by the Population Council in Bangladesh and by CORT in Gujarat, India. In the study in Bangladesh, 71 percent of 160 women ages 15 to 35 years reported that forced sex had occurred in their marriages. (2) In contrast, the study in Gujarat, India, conducted among newly married men and women, found that only 16 percent of 25 women reported nonconsensual marital sex, while about a third of 25 married men confessed that they had forced sex on their wives. (3)

In these studies, forced sex had immediate adverse consequences: Women suffered depression, loss of self-esteem, and unintended pregnancies. The Bangladeshi study further revealed that compared with other women, those experiencing domestic and sexual violence did not use oral contraceptives as consistently and did not use emergency contraception as often to prevent unintended pregnancy after unprotected sex. Many women in the Bangladeshi study also reported that they feared acquiring sexually transmitted infections, including HIV. Since they often lacked the ability to negotiate safe sex in their marriages and were likely to experience forced marital sex, they left everything to fate. "I know my husband goes to commercial sex workers," said a 25-year-old woman with three children. "But what I can do? Neither will he stop going to outside women, nor can I convince him to use condom. I know one day he will infect me with AIDS ... this is our fate."

Both the Indian and Bangladeshi studies also found that women experiencing sexual coercion lost interest in sex sooner than did those who were not sexually coerced. Consequently, they were more apt to refuse to have sex with their husbands, leading to further sexual coercion and violence.

How can this violence that women face in their own homes be addressed? Over the long term, the root causes of gender inequities must be addressed and eliminated. Systematic and persistent advocacy to mobilize the community against gender-based violence is also needed. Enforcing the law in India that prohibits marriage before the age of 18 would protect more young women from early marriage and the sexual helplessness they feel in such arrangements. In the short term, introducing family life education into schools and having family planning workers counsel newly married couples may deter sexual violence in marriage by preparing adolescents for married life and helping them develop positive attitudes toward sexuality. Young women who were informed about sexual matters and who entered marriage later (at age 19 years or older) were more likely to be able to negotiate sex with their partners and reported better marital sexual lives than did younger, less informed girls, the Bangladeshi study showed.


(1) Khan ME, Townsend J, Sinha R., et al. Sexual violence within marriage. Seminar 1996;447:32-35.

(2) Khan ME, D'Costa S, Rahman M. Prevalence and nature of violence against women in Bangladesh. The 129th Annual Meeting of the American Public Health Association, Atlanta, GA, October 21-25, 2001.

(3) Khan ME, Barge S, Sadhwani H, et al. Reflections on Marriage and Sexuality: Experience of Newly Married Men and Women in Gujarat, India. Vadodara, India: Centre for Operations Research and Training, 2004.

Faizal Haque, Communications and Training Manager, Centre for Operations Research and Training, Vadodara, India; Dr. M.E. Khan, Regional Associate Director, Asia and Near East, FRONTIERS Program, Population Council, New Delhi, India; and Dr. John Townsend, Director, FRONTIERS Program, Population Council, Washington, DC
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Title Annotation:marriage and sex
Author:Townsend, John
Geographic Code:9INDI
Date:Mar 22, 2005
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