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Progressive Attitudes to Women’s Sexual Rights In Marriage Decline in India

Alison Saldanha,
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As the #MeToo movement against sexual violence gains global momentum, in India–the world’s second-most populous country–positive attitudes about consent and safe sex among men declined by 7 percentage points in the decade ending 2016, showed an IndiaSpend analysis of National Family Health Survey, 2015-16 (NFHS-4) and 2005-06 (NFHS-3) data.

 

Among men, progressive attitudes on women and their sexual rights in a marriage fell from 70.3% in 2005-06 to 63% in 2015-16. Among women, these grew by less than 1% in the decade to 2015-16–from 67.5% in 2005-06 to 68.4% now.

 

Currently, about one in six women (16.9%) believe a wife is not justified in refusing sex with her husband even if he has a sexually transmitted disease, or if he has multiple sex partners, or if she is tired or not in the mood. Less than one in six men (14.7%) shared the same view, the data showed.

 

Further questions to men on women’s sexual rights in a marriage revealed nearly one in 10 (9.2%) believe that men can force themselves on their wives while 8.9% felt that a wife’s refusal justified extra-marital sex.

 

In India, sexual violence against women is most often committed by individuals with whom they have an intimate relationship, NFHS-4 data showed. Among ‘ever married’ women–those between 15-49 years of age who have been married at least once, even if they are currently single–who have ever experienced sexual violence, 83% report their current husband and 9%, a former husband, as perpetrators.

 

The control women get to exercise during sexual intercourse is not only an indicator of their empowerment but also holds important implications for demographic and health outcomes, the NFHS report noted. It also measures women’s acceptance of the norm that socialises them into believing that they cannot refuse their husband sex for any reason, the report explained.

 

Sexual disease, adultery, exhaustion can’t be reasons to deny husband sex

 

For the second part of our analysis, we have focused on the proportion of women (16.9%) and men (14.7%) surveyed who said wives should not refuse their husbands sex even if he has an STD, has multiple sex partners or is feeling tired/ not in the mood.

 

Over the decade to 2015-16, the percentage of women (aged 15-49 years) who felt wives cannot refuse to have sex with their husbands rose by nearly 4 percentage points from 13.1% in 2005-06 to 16.9%. The percentage of men who felt this way rose by nearly 6 percentage points.

 

Source: National Family Health Surveys 2015-16 & 2005-06

 

Younger women were more likely to disagree with a wife’s right to refuse her husband sex, the data showed. The largest percentage of women who felt this way (22.3%) were between 15 and 19 years of age.

 

Among women who believed that wives could withhold sex, most were in the age groups of 25-29 years (71.3%) and 20-24 years (70.9%). Never-married women were most likely to hold the  opposite view, in 2015-16. This was the case in 2005-06 too. More women in nuclear families (15.4%) shared regressive views compared to those in non-nuclear household structures (13.7%).

 

Uneducated women (17.2%), and those who belonged to the lowest wealth stratum (15.8%) constitute the highest percentage of women likely to hold regressive views on gender parity in marital sex.

 

Among men, those belonging to the youngest age group of 15-19 years (19.3%), uneducated (17.2%), never-married (17%), hailing from nuclear family structures (15.4%), and those belonging to the lowest group on the wealth index held the highest shares of this attitude towards consent and safe sex.

 

Over the decade to 2006-16, attitudes about women’s sexual rights in marriage among never-married men (17%) and currently married men (13.1%) declined by nearly 6 percentage points (from 11.1% and 7.8% respectively).

 

Sikhs, Jains hold most positive attitudes to sexual consent in marriage

 

Christian (21.3%) and Hindu (17.2%) women had highest proportions of respondents who felt a woman is not justified for refusing her husband sex for the three reasons, NFHS data showed, reporting not much difference from 2005-06. Meanwhile, Sikh (91.7%) and Jain (80.2%) women held the most positive attitudes about women’s sexual consent, the data showed.

 

Similarly, among men, Christians (16.5%) and Hindus (15%) had highest percentages disagreeing with women’s rights to refuse sex with her husband. In 2005-06, the largest groups to hold such views were Christian (12.4%) and Muslim (10.9%) men.

 

Source: National Family Health Surveys 2015-16 & 2005-06

 

Fewer urban men now have progressive views on marital sex

 

While men and women in urban and rural areas held largely similar views on consent and safe sex in 2015-16, a faster, greater decline in attitudes was found among men in urban areas. In 2015-16, the percentage of urban Indian men who believe women are not justified in refusing their husband sex was 7.2 percentage points higher than in 2005-06. In rural areas, men holding such views grew by 5 percentage points.

 

Source: National Family Health Surveys 2015-16 & 2005-06

 

The percentage of women (12.1%) in urban areas who disagreed with women’s rights to deny sex on these grounds, grew by 5.1 percentage points from 2005-06, compared to a 3 percentage point-growth in rural areas.

 

More men now believe wives should be punished for refusing sex

 

The NFHS surveys also include additional questions posed to men to assess gender egalitarian attitudes. To understand environment of consent or the lack of it, men were asked: If a woman refuses to have sex with her husband, does he have the right to 1) get angry and reprimand her; 2) refuse her financial support; 3) force himself on her; and 4) have extra-marital sex.

 

While 77.6% men felt a wife’s refusal to have sex did not justify opting for any of the four responses, the percentage of men who do agree with all four has risen by 3.7 percentage points from 1.1% in 2005-06 to 4.8% in 2015-16.

 

More than a fifth of men (17.6%) said women refusing sex on the three grounds mentioned earlier justified anger and reprimand. Further, 9.2% agreed men can force themselves on their wives while 8.9% felt it justified extra-marital sex, as we said. About 10.5% agreed that if wives did not consent to sex for the three mentioned reasons, they would withdraw financial support.  

 

Men in the second-highest stratum (or fourth quintile) of the wealth index–there are five equal strata called quintiles, depending on ownership of consumer goods–held the highest share of those who justified all four responses. This is a departure from other parameters on sexual consent where those belonging to the lowest quintile held the highest share in negative attitudes. A decade ago, men belonging to the third quintile of the wealth index were most (1.4%) to hold this view.

 

Source: National Family Health Surveys 2015-16 & 2005-06

 

Currently married men held the largest share (5.1%) among those who felt they had the right to be angry and reprimand (18%), withdraw financial support (10.7%), use force for sex (9.4%), or have sex with another woman (8.9%) if a wife refused.

 

Men in 25-29 age group more in favour of controlling behaviour

 

Across parameters, most men who agreed with all four behaviours were in the age groups of 40-49, 30-39 and 20-24. The highest percentage of men who agreed to the use of force with a wife even if she doesn’t want to were in the age group of 25-29 years (5.6%).

 

More men in urban than rural areas agreed with the four behaviours but the margin between the two groups is small. Men in nuclear family settings also supported this behaviour more than those in joint family structures.

 

Muslim (5.1%), Sikh (5.1%), and Hindu (4.9%) men agreed the most to all four behaviours. In 2005-06, Sikh (3.2%) and Jain (1.3%) men held the largest percentages in this regard.

 

More Muslim (10%) and Hindu (9.2%) men were in favour of forced sex when the wife was unwilling. They also agreed the most, 11.8% and 10.5% respectively, with the action of withdrawing financial support to wives if they did not consent to sex.

 

While Christian men were the largest group still reporting unchanging attitudes towards women’s consent and safe sex in marriage, as we said, after Jains (1.3%), they were the least to agree (3.3%) that acting out in all four behaviours is justified.

 

Still, Christian men formed the highest group (11.4%) agreeing that men can have sex with another woman if the wife refuses to on the three reasons, followed by Muslims (9.3%).

 

Level of schooling had little effect on men’s attitudes. Men with 8-9 years of schooling held the lowest share of men (3.9%) with all four attitudes.

 

Source: National Family Health Surveys 2015-16 & 2005-06

 

(Saldanha is an assistant editor with IndiaSpend.)

 

We welcome feedback. Please write to respond@indiaspend.org. We reserve the right to edit responses for language and grammar.

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