Lawmakers are debating a bill that would make marital rape a crime in the Bahamas, overturning the current system in which consent to sexual intercourse is presumed in a legal marriage.
Legislator Loretta Butler-Turner, who drafted the bill, said the attitude that wives are subordinate to husbands has put some women at risk of violence in the socially conservative archipelago.
"There is a constituency of our community that is not protected against rape," she said. "That is the bottom line."
Under current Bahamian law, a man can be charged with raping his wife only if the two are in divorce proceedings or living apart.
The bill already has caused debate on radio talk shows, with some islanders saying women could file false rape charges as leverage for alimony, child support or custody. Others have said the bill contradicts traditional Christian values.
Sandra Dean-Patterson, director of a nonprofit group that provides services to victims of abuse, defended the proposal, saying such a law would be an important step forward.
"It says that our nation will no longer condone violence in the family. If you have to force your husband or your wife to be sexual, something is wrong with the relationship," she said.
The government is organizing a series of forums to get comments from the public.
The proposed law would allow a judge to decide the penalty for marital rape. People currently convicted of rape face a maximum sentence of life in prison.
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