Thursday, 6 April 2017

Immunity for marital rape being reviewed: Tan Chuan-Jin

Married women should have same protection from violence as unmarried women: Tan Chuan-Jin
By Rachel Au-Yong, The Straits Times, 5 Apr 2017

Married women should have the same access to protection from violence as unmarried women, Social and Family Development Minister Tan Chuan-Jin said yesterday.

To that end, the Government is "actively reviewing" the issue of marital immunity for rape, and will give an update once it is completed.

In one of the firmest statements from the Government on the subject, Mr Tan emphatically told Parliament that violence against women is "unequivocally wrong".

"Although married persons have conjugal rights over each other, such rights should be exercised within reasonable behaviour," he told the House during a debate on a proposal to express support for women's aspirations in Singapore.

He also noted that existing laws have made Singapore a safer place for women, but at the same time, "we have to shape society's ideas about what is not acceptable".

The minister was responding to MPs' concerns about violence against women.

Nominated MP Kok Heng Leun urged the House to be less tolerant of all sorts of violence. "How can we turn a blind eye towards brutal acts of violence like rape simply because it is committed by a family member? How can we as a society or as policymakers protect vulnerable members of our society?"

The current review of the law signals a further change on what constitutes marital rape. Up until 2007, Singapore did not recognise the concept of marital rape - that a husband could rape his wife.

That year, the law was amended to recognise marital rape under certain circumstances, such as if the husband and wife were living apart under an interim judgment of divorce or written separation agreement, or if divorce proceedings had begun, or if the wife had already obtained a personal protection order against her husband.

But such qualifiers are not satisfactory to advocates like Ms Jolene Tan, head of advocacy and research at AWARE, who has seen such cases at the group from time to time.

She welcomed the review, saying: "If it is non-consensual penetration, it is rape. There should not be any legal distinction between marital rape and other kinds of rape."

Ms Tan hopes the law can be changed by October, when Singapore is up for review by the United Nations' Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, which takes stock of progress on women's rights issues.

National University of Singapore sociologist Paulin Straughan also said the law review was a step in the right direction, and would empower victims to step forward to reclaim their dignity.

There is still a high degree of social stigmatisation surrounding marital rape cases, she said, adding: "The afflicted party would find it very difficult to raise a public case against the spouse. Having a law in place would point our moral compass in the right direction, so that for those who are afflicted, they know the law is on their side and (this would) dispel any misperceptions that just because he or she is your spouse, he or she can do anything to you."

Agreeing, Mr Kok said he hoped the Government would consult women's organisations like AWARE to get more input on the matter.

Ms Tin Pei Ling (MacPherson), who tabled the motion on women, said the review was timely and necessary. "Men and women enter marriage as life partners. Thus, mutual respect is paramount to the sanctity and longevity of the relationship."


Before 2007: It is not a crime for a man to rape his wife.

2007: The law is changed to recognise marital rape under certain circumstances.

2012: Law Minister K. Shanmugam says arguments for criminalising marital rape are worth looking at.

2013: Then Second Minister for Home Affairs S. Iswaran notes one instance of false reporting since 2008.

2016: Singapore tells UN Human Rights Council it is "actively working towards repealing marital rape immunity".

Now: Minister for Social and Family Development Tan Chuan-Jin revisits the issue.

Marital rape: When no means no
Government review of immunity for marital rape long overdue, say experts
By Kok Xing Hui, The Sunday Times, 9 Apr 2017

She wanted a divorce and had moved back to her parents' home. Weeks later, her husband dragged her to their former home, where he stripped, gagged and bound her, before forcing himself on her.

For that, he was initially fined $4,000 for wrongful confinement, criminal intimidation and voluntarily causing hurt. They were still man and wife so he could not have raped her - under the law.

That was 1999. Almost two decades later, Singapore still allows for immunity for marital rape. But that looks set to change as the Government said it is "actively reviewing" the issue. Minister for Social and Family Development Tan Chuan-Jin, who highlighted the review in Parliament on Tuesday, told The Sunday Times it is timely.

"I strongly believe that a married woman should not have any less protection against sexual violence than an unmarried woman," he said. "While there are conjugal rights between a married couple, these rights exist within the bounds of reasonable behaviour. With this in mind, when a woman says 'No', it means 'No'."

Lawyers, activists and social workers welcomed the move, saying the law should have long been scrapped. "Married women are not chattel," said Mr Sunil Sudheesan, acting president of the Association of Criminal Lawyers of Singapore.

Criminal lawyer Amolat Singh said: "Imagine this, a woman can run a company but when she goes home, she can't even say no to her husband forcing himself on her. That is quite preposterous."

Non-spousal rape, meanwhile, carries a maximum jail sentence of 20 years and the man is also liable to a fine or caning.

The man in the 1999 case was eventually jailed for 18 months when the case was appealed. Then-Chief Justice Yong Pung How called him an uncivilised savage and said the fine was "manifestly inadequate".

Over the years, Singapore took small steps to redress the issue.

Before 2007, it did not recognise that a man could rape his wife. But that year, the law was amended to lift immunity under certain circumstances: if the couple were living apart under an interim divorce judgment or written separation pact; if divorce proceedings had begun; or if the wife has a personal protection order against her husband.

But this was not enough, said many. Said Singapore Management University law don Eugene Tan: "The amendments continued to harbour a misogynistic mindset. It was a case of two steps forward, one step backwards."

Immunity should be abolished altogether, say the experts. But one concern - which some ministers surfaced in Parliament in 2007 - was that a woman could cry rape to get back at her husband.

Then-Senior Minister of State for Home Affairs Ho Peng Kee said: "We do know of cases where a wife can cry foul. We have got feedback from men whose marriages are also on the rocks, but who have sex and the wife may appear to consent. But afterwards, she... can threaten that rape has happened. Should that be marital rape? That is the Damocles' sword hanging over him."

In a departure from this view, Minister Tan says: "Existing safeguards in the form of evidentiary requirements, prosecutorial discretion and judicial scrutiny are in place to prevent the miscarriage of justice for all types of rape, including marital rape."

Another concern was that criminal proceedings of marital rape may be intrusive for families. But family lawyer Sim Bock Eng noted: "This same argument also applies to marital violence and has not stopped marital violence from being a crime."

Singapore, along with Afghanistan, China, Indonesia, Iran and Saudi Arabia, still offers marital rape immunity. Those that had abolished it include all American states by 1993, Norway in 1971, Thailand in 2007 and South Korea in 2013.

There have not been many known cases of marital rape here. The Sexual Assault Care Centre started by the Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware) in 2014 saw 117 cases of rape and sexual assault by penetration in 2015 and 138 last year. Only six in each year were marital rape cases.

But social workers said the issue is vastly under-reported, as are rape cases. Victims are also unlikely to come forward since marital rape is not illegal, said Ms Jolene Tan, head of advocacy and research at Aware. Lawyer Ivan Cheong added: "There's the added trauma of a wife having to share that a husband has forced himself on her."

The greatest benefit of abolishing this immunity, said those interviewed, is in sending a signal to society that men should not force their wives to have sex without consent.

Ms Tan pointed to a 2014 Aware survey of 500 youth which found that while three-quarters thought it was important to seek consent for physical intimacy when dating, 40 per cent did not think so when married.

The hope is that mindsets will shift, with the latest signal from the Government. Said law don Dr Tan: "It would appear that the immunity for marital rape is on its last legs in Singapore."


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