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Camouflaging rape

The Reporter (Addis Ababa)
December 29, 1999
By Emrakeb Assefa

Addis Ababa - I have to say I was moved to a protest after that offensive piece by John W. in The Reporter two weeks ago, trying to justify the use of force in marital sexual relations. He apparently thinks that marriage "justifies" rape (as defined by John's oft-cited law) in certain circumstances, I believe because of the prevalence of certain local traditions.

Are we letting 42-year-old laws conceived in another era - when female submission to male will and practices like wife-beating were taken for granted - decide our conscience today?

Not to mention the fact that sex remains a highly painful endeavor for many women here because of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). Coercion, indeed. What does he know about it?

He called his article Rape or Involuntary Sex!. Is there such a thing as "involuntary sex?" If it is not voluntary, that means there is a force exerted during the act. In other words, there exists really no difference between rape and involuntary sex. The only justification John could produce was the 42-year- old Penal Code.

Interestingly enough, he introduced his article with the saying: "The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. And likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does." I CORINTHIANS 7:4

Very true. But, I have a question. While the second part of the quotation definitely applies in this country, does the writer honestly believe that the first part holds water here? What women in Ethiopia are asking for is that as much the husband has authority over his wife's body, let the same rule apply to the husband. Let a woman have authority over her husband's body! Are you ready for that, if ever?

John W. also said something else. That the participants were mainly women from around the country. Being present at that conference, I know that statement to be untrue. Indeed, what struck me as different was that there were more men than women during the event. An indication how strongly men felt about the topic and a fact which proved that men control the law-making mechanism. The discussion in a way does concern men as much, if not more, men.

John's bone of contention was the suggestion to the effect of amending the penal law so as to outlaw rape of a wife by a husband. This suggestion, he appeared to think, was a "feat" of the Ethiopian Women Lawyers Association (EWLA). But EWLA is specifically mandated to bring to light issues relating to the image of women in the media. In fact, it was one of the group's raison d'etre. This is a classic case, if I ever saw one.

One need not be told what rape, under existing law, means. One definitely knows that it involves "compelling a woman to submit to sexual intercourse outside wedlock whether by the use of violence or grave intimidation after having rendered her unconscious or incapable of resistance." What some women are lobbying against is that it should be changed.

Sex being an important consequence of marriage, John W. said, it is "absolutely unacceptable" to make any arrangement between the spouses to relieve them of their legal duties of a sexual relation. A husband is not prohibited from "compelling, including by force, his wife to submit to sexual intercourse or vice versa." That way, he said, the spouses "must respect each other, which involves compliance and support of their respective interest."

Is that how a husband should respect his wife, his helpmate, by forcing her to have sex with her? Okay, does he mean to say that if a wife "submits" to her husband to forcefully have sex with her, she was showing a sign of respect and protecting his interest?

John sees the only limitation as being when the act carries "risk or seriously prejudicing their health." He said whether the act had a marginally ill effect on their health should be decided case by case and as evidenced by the professional opinion of medical doctors. However, that professional opinion might be proved "unprofessional." It is an increasingly open secret that nowadays some women find it "fashionable" (safe) to ask specifically for women doctors because of fear of harassment.

Since sex among married couples is an obligation imposed by that 42-year-old law, physical exhaustion as a result of work, lack of pleasure or interest, disputes, contempt, etc. cannot be a ground to abstain from sex, he argued. And why not? Why should we base our argument on an ancient penal code that has the least idea of what women want? Because what everything boils down to is about what a few men want or what some women want. Those men got away with it forty years ago. But, does that give them the license to do the same for eternity? Remember, this is the same law that saw wife-beating as an insufficient ground for divorce.

Apparently, "some women" should not "start lobbying" for their sexual liberty within marriage, because John said: "This would obviously contradict Article 640(2) of our Civil Code which makes sex in marriage imperative, notwithstanding the will of the partners." Really?

What scared the writer, more than the fact that the sanctity of a marriage was defiled by force, is that such new law could encourage a wife/husband "to wake up from their bed at midnight and run away to the nearest police station and file criminal complaints." This would invite law enforcement officers to be involved in "the most personal affairs of individuals that could also pose a dangerous threat to the institution of marriage."

To him, it is not the fact that a lot of men are using their brute force to bend their wives to their will. To him, the fact that women are forced into the unbearable situation where they have to file for divorce is not a matter of concern.

After arguing that sexual liberty within wedlock was not "feasible" in many western countries, he reasoned that it was even more so in our society. It is not only sensitive but also the most camouflaged issue. Why should it remain "camouflaged"? The right of the husband to camouflage his family life ends when he forces the wife to submit. Was she supposed to shut her mouth even when the pain was unbearable as the inhuman act was being done by her husband, in her bed, instead of with some stranger in some dark alley?

Hardly many spouses dare to talk over such matters before family arbitrators, let alone in an open court, he argued. Maybe not now. But that is not the way it is going to stay. In the same way that some women are "daring" to discuss the matter in public, there will be more like EWLA who would go out and speak on the platform about "family controversies, particularly sex affairs." Changing the law in that way will not contribute to "the collapse of marriage" and "separation from bed and board," as John W. feared.

Finally, to the three questions John raised, one has this to say: yes and yes. Some women, indeed, have considered items in the Civil Code that provide sex as an obligation and not a magnanimous undertaking performed at the spouses' pleasure. Having considered that, they want to change it. And those who want to be raped by their husbands could go on being quiet about it while the rest have the chance to voice their complaints.

If there is the physical possibility that a wife can rape her husband, she should be open to the same punishment as her husband. The last question is not worth answering. There is no such thing as "the sanctity of marriage" as long as one of the spouses uses force to get their point across.

Copyright (c) 1999 The Reporter. Distributed via Africa News Online ( For information about the content or for permission to redistribute, publish or use for broadcast, contact the publisher.

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